Dr. Jenny Billings is a faculty member at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College
Just before last year’s spring break, we were told to gather what we needed for a couple of weeks of working remotely due to COVID-19 concerns. We did not know for sure at the time, but those weeks turned into months, and those months into over a year. My college took a conservative approach and for that, I am thankful. While I have been on campus three times since being sent home, my visits were only to gather supplies, check my box, and record a congratulatory message for our graduates. Sixteen months later, I am making plans for returning to campus this fall. While heading back hints at the return of normalcy, it is natural to feel unsettled. To help me settle back in, I will carry with me the following lessons:
Lesson Learned: Working from Home is NOT for Me
While my lessons continued online for my English students, working from home taught me a few lessons. For example, I do not want to work from home. I apologize for ever thinking it, wishing for it, or speaking the concept out loud. While my Shih-Tzu, Tola, will be very upset with me when I go back, it is time to rejoin the world, to see my faculty, to meet with students face-to-face, to not hide behind a static image on Zoom and to work in front of two, large monitors.
Lesson Learned: Remain Flexible
I have always considered myself to be empathetic and therefore flexible with students. But before COVID-19, my flexibility came with a cut-off. I would allow one “whoops,” one resubmission, one missed deadline, one incorrect format—that kind of thing. Over the past year, if students were honest with themselves, transparent with me, and communicated before the deadline regarding their needs, I was flexible more than once. When we return to campus, I will continue that trend: I will remain flexible with students, without a defined cut-off or limited number of times allowed.
Lesson Learned: Meet Students Where They Attend
Not everyone is going to be ready to come back. This fall, the phrase, “meet students where they are,” will present a more literal meaning. As I anticipate return plans, I like to think of it as “meet students where they choose to attend.” Some of my students will come to class in person, some will opt to stay synchronously online, and some will watch recordings and complete the asynchronous-accompanying assignment. They will choose their own adventure if you will. This past year flipped the notions of flipped classroom approaches in many ways. What I must do for my students’ success, I must do everywhere, in all delivery methods, and all the time. In an educational world where we use more digital than ever, it is my responsibility to stay better connected with students than before (and trust me, pun intended there).
Lesson Learned: Important, Not Inefficient
Before COVID-19, when I trimmed courses down from 16 to 4 weeks, I would often ask myself, “What are the most important concepts that my students need to walk away with?” This new environment has me asking myself the same thing every day for every section. Busy work cannot exist in this space. Every minute of instruction must be meaningful and relevant. It is time to depend on higher-order questions to assess what students have learned. There have been times that I have felt like I was not teaching English, writing, grammar, or reading. I was teaching confidence. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, especially right now.
In the past, I would sometimes trim down the time I would leave at the beginning of class to just talk to students. To ask them about their weekend, how things were going, and get to know them better. Back then, that time seemed trimmable. Now, it is more important than ever to form relationships with each student from the get-go and on a continuous basis. This must be done repeatedly, purposively, and without judgement. Helping students find their voice is one of the most important aspects of my job. If I am not communicating with them effectively, how am I able to do that?
Lesson Learned: FaceTime Does Not Replace Face Time
While virtual meetings helped me provide a sense of normalcy and similar classroom experiences for my students, nothing replaces daily interaction. I miss my babies. Talking to black screens, photos even, depletes the life right from you and your teaching. You do not see the “aha” moments, there are no head nods, and you do not have any verbal cues of learning or confirmation. Sure, students can use chat or ask questions as you go along, but it just is not the same. Before COVID-19, my department was quickly moving to a 50/50 model when it came to sections offered: 50% fully online asynchronous and 50% with an on-campus presence of some kind. This past year has reconfirmed the need for face-to-face interaction and instruction. We did the best we could with remote instruction, but it did not work for all students. Students deserve choice and they will be given options soon.
Lesson Learned: Do Not Settle for the “New Normal”
I refuse to call this the “new normal” or even acknowledge it as such. As we head back on campus this fall, it is important to acknowledge and celebrate what you and your peers did during this unprecedented situation. It is time to accept and own the appreciation (which instructors are not always good at doing). While going back to school will feel familiar, there will be plenty of adjustments in this post-COVID academic world. Be patient—it is going to take time to figure out what is best for you and your students in this new environment.
We must be honest with students upfront. Returning students are going to notice the changes immediately. Things are going to feel different if students must wear masks, are socially distanced in classrooms, and cannot convene in student spaces or cafeterias. Discuss what to expect with students—provide transparency that helps encourage predictability.
So, Now What?
Now that our day-to-day teaching routines have been disrupted, there has never been a better time to start fresh. As Alanis Morrissette says, “You live, you learn.” While I am talking to all of you, of course, I am mostly talking to myself. Jenny, honey, it is time to live a little. Take a trip, and by that, I mean, a vacation. Change up your surroundings. And when you go, turn work off. Fill your well. Socialize with folks outside of your work circle, otherwise, you will be back in the work cycle. Keep up the hobby you found during COVID. Bake those French macarons to your heart’s content, darn it.
Remote teaching made me a more well-rounded teacher. When things settle down, I will be a better teacher, chair, and human. I have more empathy for life outside of school and have already found a new appreciation for simply going into work and seeing my colleagues and students. It has been an impossible challenge to find ways to best support all the unique student needs during this time. That said, this past year reaffirmed and increased my confidence in my teaching. I was made to do this, no matter what, no matter when, and no matter how.
The first thing to go into my Fall 2021 syllabus? Extra credit to students who stop by and say “hello.” I have missed that so much.
Want to explore more advice on how to merge the best of the traditional and virtual classrooms? View our recorded webinar.