Beth Ryan is Associate Professor of Instruction in the Business and Entrepreneurship department at Columbia College Chicago
There have been so many disruptions in education due to this global pandemic, and the challenges of online teaching continue. As I wrap up this spring semester, I am reflecting on things I have learned, and I realize that this period of adversity has provided me with an opportunity to discover and reconnect with what really matters in the learning process.
While being a teacher through this pandemic has been challenging, so has being a student, a parent or an administrator. The sudden shift to online classes was not easy for anyone. We were all underprepared and have all been impacted in a myriad of ways by this prolonged global crisis. Personally, I have been humbled by the stories my students have shared with me about the effects of the pandemic on their lives. So, learning to be flexible and refining standards at this moment in time have been important to help my students succeed.
For example, shifting some deadlines or altering assignment criteria at times has reduced stress and helped students reach the course learning outcomes. Extending grace to others and ourselves may not solve all our problems, but taking deep breaths and giving each other more space may restore humanity and cultivate more innovative and holistic paths forward.
Since the student’s experience has been vastly redefined through this period, it’s often the connection, not the content, that is most important in the process of learning. Remembering that students are young people who are temporarily functioning in the role of student helps me put things in a larger perspective. They are juggling many responsibilities from other roles that they function in while they pursue their academic goals. The lack of social connection has increased their anxiety and depression and has been an obstacle to learning and growing. Building relationships and connections with students has not only helped them stay engaged with the course content—it has contributed to a greater sense of belonging during this period of isolation.
I flipped my classroom long before the pandemic which was fortuitous as it provided more time in virtual synchronous meetings to check in with students and hear more of their life experiences. Together, we made connections from these experiences to course content. Organizing students into smaller groups and using breakout rooms or discussion forums has fostered a more collaborative and inclusive learning environment. Also, spending time in and outside of class helping students build relationships with faculty, staff and other students has been so important since they have not been on campus where these connections are more organic. Inclusive teaching takes consciousness, particularly when designing and delivering online classes.
The pandemic has accelerated the reality that we really are engaging a new generation of learners. Young people’s consumption of media content is immeasurable, so helping them link content to current or previous experiences deepens their knowledge and builds skills. This is all a process of fluid design. Teaching solely online this year has really reinforced for me that informational content could not be the main element, therefore I couldn’t simply upload content to my LMS and record lectures and expect learning to occur. I had to do more than replicate what I did in a physical classroom. Especially in times of adversity, the learning process can be more important than the content. I recognized that I needed to provide different ways for students to demonstrate their learning and go beyond content to address other skills and capabilities to help them make sense of the heightened challenges in our world today.
Students have needed extra guidance in managing schedules and completing assignments, so I have scheduled additional office hours and encouraged students to linger on Zoom after class and chat more casually. I added more discussion forums and small group discussions in synchronous virtual meetings allowing more opportunities for students to speak up and collaborate. I have designed my courses and redesigned them over and over again as I experimented and found different strategies to engage students. While I cannot predict the future of learning, I know that online and hybrid learning is here to stay, so I continue to make room in the curriculum for ongoing experimentation and future-focused conversations.
I have been exhausted at times from the lingering conditions of the pandemic and simultaneously energized at other moments. Languishing is the name for the episodic “blah” I often felt. Adam Grant shares some antidotes to languishing in his recent New York Times article, There’s a Name For the Blah You’ve Been Feeling: It’s Called Languishing. Reading this validated that I am not alone and this is part of the process of living through an unprecedented global crisis. Practicing some of the suggested strategies helps me avoid stagnation and burnout.
I heard it said that self-care is not self-indulgence, and this simple reframe helps me take better care of myself to counterbalance the negative effects of pandemic life. Allowing a few minutes of class time for students to share some self-care strategies with each other has fostered a positive sense of community. Functioning in our global, competitive, virtual world today where we are constantly plugged in, doesn’t allow for much down time. Taking time for dog walks, lunch without screen time or “non-work” conversations with friends have been simple strategies to minimize languishing. Modeling self-care in a healthy way sets an example for the younger generation.
This pandemic has served as a teacher for me, so I decided to be a student and learn from the adversity. I discovered that resilience, the ability to adapt well and bounce back quickly in times of stress, is a skill that can be learned and cultivated. A resource I frequently turn to is Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators, by Elena Aguilar. She writes, “By cultivating resilience, teachers can fulfill the intentions that brought them into the teaching profession.” Another helpful resource I’ve drawn upon is Jennifer Gonzalez’s 12 Ways Teachers Can Build their Own Resilience. When I got overwhelmed with technology or the mechanics of online teaching, I stepped back and reconnected with my intention, which is my passion for learning. Learning how to leverage my passion and adapt to new online tools has often been a messy process, but acknowledging my imperfections and learning alongside my students has cultivated a learning environment of shared discovery. Another resource I turn to is Brené Brown’s, The Gift of Imperfections. By demonstrating my resilience and working through the pain and stresses of this pandemic, I can be a role model for my students and help them become more independent lifelong learners.
I am reminded that sometimes teachers need to be students. I am excited to be a student this summer and engage in personal and professional development activities that will continue to strengthen my emotional resilience. I look forward to slowing down a bit this summer, reflecting and connecting with my intention that brought me to the teaching profession.