1. White, Krista A. PhD, RN, CCRN-K, CNE
  2. Ruth-Sahd, Lisa A. DEd, RN, CCRN, CEN, CNE

Article Content

As the chaos of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) unfolded during the winter and spring 2020, nurse educators and students faced unprecedented challenges and concerns. The coronavirus pandemic forced administrators, educators, and students to think outside-the-box, outside-the-classroom, and outside-the-physical-boundaries of campus. Numerous logistical challenges during COVID-19 included leaving residential campus life, finding uninterrupted study/workspaces away from family, and learning to navigate online classrooms, online testing, and virtual clinical practice. Frontline clinicians dealt with additional concerns such as fear of viral exposure, difficult working conditions, escalating case numbers, and compassion fatigue. Perhaps most challenging of all, however, were the emotional ones. Labile emotions such as fear, anger, anxiety, and frustration led to emotional exhaustion and difficulty adjusting to the current life and educational circumstances.


Kubler-Ross'1 Stages of Grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) is used as the framework to guide discussion about compassionate teaching (CT) strategies during the COVID-19 pandemic. Considering the losses experienced (eg, normal academic semesters, clinical site access, social closeness) in these uncertain times, students looked to educators to be compassionate and to role model coping strategies. The purpose of this article is to discuss how CT strategies were used with students during this pandemic.


Compassionate Teaching Defined

While the literature is replete with articles on compassion, these articles focus on compassionate patient care and educating students to be compassionate.2-5 No articles were found specifically linking CT with student loss and grief. Jazaieri6 notes that CT first involves faculty awareness of student suffering, followed by a sympathetic concern, and then a wish to see relief. Lastly, CT embraces faculty readiness to find ways to help relieve that suffering. Jazaieri6 identifies several reasons why CT is needed throughout education, one of which is life and school stressors. Implementing CT strategies requires sensitivity to others when creating humanistic, kind responses to the circumstances. Humanistic pedagogy necessitates an awareness of world circumstances beyond the classroom so that wisdom is attained.7,8


Implementing Compassionate Teaching in Response to COVID-19

Compassionate teaching strategies helped thwart losses and reframe academic life.6-8 Seeing students as human beings impacted by the COVID-19 crisis and using CT strategies allowed educators to meet unique learning needs. As nurse educators who embodied CT, one could assist students to see perceived losses as potential gifts, encourage ways to recreate the sacred learning spaces, and explore ways to embrace the impermanence of COVID-19.6-8


Seeing Loss as a Potential Gift

Recognizing the losses experienced in early 2020 and meeting students where they were within the stages of Kubler-Ross align with CT.6,7 Students experienced the loss of ceremonies (convocation and graduation), loss of clinical experiences, and loss of life as we knew it. Losses can be unexpected gifts. While acknowledging these losses, it was our challenge as educators to foster an awareness that students' contribution to the profession would be determined by the ability to create meaning in the face of ambiguity, overcome chaos, and adapt during a time of unsettling challenges. As Jennings9 reminds us, we are social communal people meant to survive and flourish with others. During the pandemic, we lost social networks because of social distancing mandates. When recognizing suffering (observed or latent), we needed to find ways to help each other overcome the suffering and perceived losses and work through denial toward acceptance, all while pausing to recognize the potential gifts in each circumstance.


Recreating Sacred Learning Spaces

The sacred learning space as we knew it, a place where students and educators connected in a shared space and engaged in undistracted pedagogy to transform thinking and create learning,8 had to be recreated. Both students and educators were required to expeditiously identify the most valued components of the previous environment they wanted to retain in the new virtual reality. Foremost in education is that students believe their learning space is respectful and safe,7,9 a place to speak freely and share frustrations. Safe learning spaces were even more important amid COVID-19. Keiser and Adarkar8 indicate a component of CT is the allowance of valuable class time to "be" as well as "do." Pre-COVID class time might not have included dedicated time to discuss how everyone was managing school and life. However, the recreated learning environment may have allowed a safe space for students and educators to express feelings and discuss challenges within the context of COVID-19. Kubler-Ross1 reminds us that stages of grief and loss are iterative and that people may be in different stages at the same time.


Classes, whether on campus or online, synchronous or asynchronous, were altered during the pandemic. Conducting live classes via videoconferencing in households full of families came with challenges. Educators accustomed to teaching on-campus classes with students' full attention realized compassion was necessary to deal with interruptions such as children, televisions, and pets. Students, if unfamiliar with online learning, required instructions and role modeling about professional virtual classroom etiquette. For educators and students who functioned in a distance environment before COVID-19, the adjustment was not as difficult. Students taking asynchronous classes benefitted from CT as they struggled to find study spaces away from distractions such as families who were home from school and work. Students should minimize distractions during synchronous classes; however, CT embraced an interruption by acknowledging the child or pet briefly, experiencing the happiness of the moment, and then resuming class.


Under normal circumstances, an academic semester and course structure maintain tight schedules, firm due dates, and limited flexibility. Exceptions to this structure are usually made for extraordinary circumstances on an individual basis. Conversely, during the pandemic when many students may have faced extraordinary situations, CT strategies embracing flexibility6-9 were likely appreciated by students. Further, increased stress levels and shorter attention spans impacted the ability to concentrate and retain information, making quality communication along with flexibility elemental for success. Strategies that demonstrated flexibility and CT, particularly for students accustomed to only on-campus classes, may have included posting recorded lectures in the learning management system for repeated viewing, offering additional review activities to reinforce content, and laying out a clear plan for the week so everyone could schedule accordingly. Some educators had the ability to alter due dates, offer later-than-usual course withdrawal dates, and offer the option of pass/fail in lieu of a course letter grade. Such strategies likely enhanced the opportunity for students to meet outcomes.


Embracing the Impermanence of COVID-19

The crisis phase of the COVID-19 pandemic was not permanent, but in the early months, chaos surrounded many people. As indicated by Jazaieri,6 CT is when educators are cognizant of suffering, show empathy toward that suffering, and find ways to relieve it. Sharing personal stories was a CT strategy that helped students to gain perspective within the context of a pandemic, discover ways to stay positive, and explore beneficial coping strategies. Sharing stories helped to validate our human connection and empower us to make meaning of the challenges at hand.10 Embracing the impermanence of COVID-19 allowed us to accept (as Kubler-Ross notes) it for what it was and maintain a professional stability. Everyone needed to find ways to work through denial, anger, bargaining, and depression toward acceptance.



Life teaches us all many lessons. While considering the losses and the Stages of Grief as posited by Kubler-Ross, educators mindfully engaged in CT that assisted students to see perceived losses as potential gifts, encouraged ways to recreate the sacred learning space, and explored ways to embrace the impermanence of COVID-19 crisis. Educators and students must move forward with the wherewithal that we focused on the positives, took care of ourselves and others, and gained important takeaways to inform future educational and practice initiatives.




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