One year ago, I wrote “Experiencing COVID-Style Classroom Teaching,” because I was scared. Before I walked into the classroom for my summer technical communication course, my fear of COVID overwhelmed me almost to the point of panic. I did not want to get sick, and I had not been around anyone but my children in four months.
As I started teaching, I became aware of my fears of my students, of the masks and the cleaning protocols, as well. It was just so much. COVID hit the world like a tidal wave that washed me back into the classroom with worries about my health and that of my family and students. Summer 2020 teaching was like being submerged under water, pushed to the sand and unable to breathe.
Fall 2020 and spring 2021 were somewhat better. I spent the year teaching hybrid and asynchronous courses and was lucky enough to be in the classroom only one day a week. I completely flipped my classes to avoid lectures and too much talking in class, and my students followed university protocols, including wearing masks, staying socially distanced and sanitizing their workstations. I got used to “new normal.”
In “Beyond COVID-Style Teaching,” I talked about how I balanced my teaching, COVID and my home life. I had to figure out how to handle my emotions and the additional workload, as well as support my family — as we all did — because I didn’t want to break. I felt close to that point, however, and more times than not, I felt like a failure. During the fall, I struggled with my own course expectations while still giving grace and understanding to students, but my evaluations were less than stellar.
Based on those evaluations, I thought carefully about what I wanted to accomplish in my courses and how I could revise my own teaching pedagogy to be more student-centered and flexible. I wrote “A Pedagogy of Choice,” which was my reflection on my fall semester.
I spent the entire winter break reworking my courses to illustrate this pedagogy of choice. Students decided if they wanted to make videos or write their responses. They made choices for the assignments they completed, topics, partners and means of communication. My students responded positively to these course changes.
As I became more flexible with students and my course design, I became kinder to my own children and myself. I began to relax, as did my students.
A Time of Continual Reflection
The 2020-21 academic year was one of continual reflection for me. I needed to keep everyone around me safe while teaching my students course content and continuing my progress in my doctoral program.
I wrote and defended my prospectus, ran my dissertation study, and wrote a full draft of my dissertation. I studied undergraduate faculty who designed their courses in Canvas while they leveraged the platform’s affordances and overcame the constraints during the pandemic and how doing so added to their stress and workloads.
Based on my research, I realize that I am not alone in my feelings about the past year. The faculty members in my study clearly were concerned with their students’ well-being and success in their courses, but they, too, struggled with designing their courses in ways that allowed them to teach the content clearly and logically. Many faculty members completed pedagogical and Canvas training to help them transition online.
This training, along with the time it took to move to face-to-face content online, took a tremendous amount of time, which greatly added to their workloads and increased their stress levels. In fact, the majority of faculty in my study worked year-round from January 2020 through to winter break of that year, giving up their spring break and summer vacation — off contract — to complete training and redesign their courses for online modalities. Many faculty members learned new technologies when they realized that they could not replicate face-to-face teaching techniques in Canvas, which created even more work for them.
Although my study is small — 61 surveys and 11 interviews — I believe that the experiences the faculty shared were the norm. This year has been a learning experience for everyone involved.
Resilience at Work
Now, many of us are returning to campuses without COVID protocols. Because of this, I feel another kind of fear.
I weathered the pandemic without getting ill and without my own children getting ill. I count that as a huge win, but many people were not so lucky. With the Delta variant, executive orders rescinding COVID mandates in the state of Florida, and returning to pre-pandemic operations on my campus, I am worried about walking back into the classroom.
Luckily, I don’t feel the same level of fear that I felt last year, but I am concerned with how to balance student privacy rights — not asking their COVID vaccination status, for example — and still keep myself safe.
I am teaching another summer technical communication course, and I will still wear my mask when I am close to my students. I feel the need to connect with them, see their work and look at their computers, which I cannot do from six feet away or without a mask. I also keep students from sitting in the first row so that I can lecture without my mask. I am sure some students will think I am crazy for still taking precautions, and that’s OK.
My summer course is a modified flipped classroom, in which students have to read and watch videos that I created last year (and I created many) as homework while they do projects in class. But I think my lecturing at the beginning of classes, even for a little while, will be important for all of us.
I have designed the course with a pedagogy of choice mind-set, as well, so students have agency over their own learning. For example, students can create a video presentation explaining their infographic content and design choices, or they can present in class live.
I want to allow all students to feel comfortable in class while still covering the material for the course. I am not sure what my students have specifically experienced this past year, but we all suffered trauma, which has affected our emotional, cognitive and physical well-being. Making students comfortable in class is the only way I will be able to get them to learn.
This past year has taught me to be less rigid in my own expectations in my courses and more focused on students, which reflects a resilient pedagogy. In their 2020 article “Laying the Foundation for a Resilient Teaching Community,” Rebecca Quintana and James DeVaney argue for “extensibility,” “flexibility” and “redundancy” in course design based on universal design for learning and allowing for student learning, no matter the situation.
Once I complete this summer course, I will need to rework my fall courses, since I will be back in the classroom full-time. But I will approach my courses with the same student-centered, flexible design to allow any eventuality — to make my courses resilient. My students may still experience a pandemic fatigue or lag in their skill sets. We may need to shift back online due to a Delta variant outbreak, or we could experience a hurricane or another natural disaster that disrupts our classes.
I need to be prepared. We all need to be prepared.
I firmly believe that teaching through the pandemic — the fear, the learning, my own research, interactions with students, shifting online — has made me a better instructor and more mindful of how I approach my students. Additionally, I have learned a great deal about my fellow professors through my dissertation research and myself through my constant reflection and revision of my courses.
I realize that we have done amazing work despite COVID and deserve just as much grace as we give our students — or perhaps even more.
As we move into the next academic year, we all must decide how we will take what we have learned from the past and adjust to new expectations and possible eventualities. We simply won’t be able to return to traditional course designs.
We need to consider: How will we continue to use technology to teach our classes? How can we design courses that facilitate student agency? How can we continue to motivate students and teach them effectively in the “post-COVID” era? How can we build in choices to allow for flexibility? How can we give ourselves grace and understanding to avoid burning ourselves out? In short, how can we develop resilient courses while remaining resilient ourselves?