As part of an early-career mentor program, I took part in a year-long collection of workshops, meeting, discussions, and presentations about creating an engaging classroom environment. All members of this program were all asked to reflect on our time as part of the end-of-the-year requirement. Here is the reflection I submitted, followed by the reflection I needed to write.
(This was composed in mid-May, 2020 in the midst of the global pandemic, but before many of the police brutality protests.)
The Reflection I Submitted
The prompt: “Describe the benefits of participating in the program, any challenges you experienced participating in the program, and any recommendations for improving the program. The reflection paper should not exceed 2 typed double-spaced pages.”
This past year has been a year full of learning – I learned so much about myself as a faculty member, about my teaching practices, and about how to best support my students. I’m not sure I would have been privy to all of these lessons if I was not a part of this learning community. The conversations that took place during (and after) our monthly meetings were a huge part of my growth.
Most of the challenges I experienced had to do with time management. Making time to prepare for and attend our monthly meetings was difficult since I taught seven classes in fall semester and the six during spring semester despite being hired to a 3/4 load. (It was nice to also learn that I wasn’t the only one put in this situation by their department or College.) I was often conflicted between wishing we had more time to meet with our learning community of new faculty and wrestling with how I was going to be away from my office for one hour a month! Obviously, I was able to make it work and I got a lot out of these sessions, but it was an on-going struggle all year.
In future versions of this program, I would consider trying to find a way to include mentorship or input from faculty who have previously gone through this learning community. There was a lot of benefit to workshopping our teaching strategies, as well as our presentations. If the members of the learning community were given feedback from past members, it may add to the benefits of the time spent together. This may also allow the opportunity for small groups to meet and then share to the whole learning community what they gained from their mentorship meetings. It was also discussed that it may be helpful if members were put into small groups or pairs during the first couple summer meetings in order to instigate collaboration earlier in the process.
When we all started in the summer of 2019, I wasn’t quite sure what to think. We just seemed like a complex and contradictory collection of new faculty members, all trying to check off boxes by attending meetings put on by folks who seemed much more practiced and proficient than we were. But then in the second semester (fall), once we identified our teaching strategies and we were trying to envision how they would work in our classroom with our students, those discussions were gold – I only wish there could have been a way to give us all the time and space to talk about these ideas more. It finally made sense why Physical Education faculty and Business faculty and Literature faculty and Science faculty were all in a group with me (Teacher Education faculty). The workshop-feel of the meetings during spring semester - when we were all struggling with, laboring over, and trying to figure out what our presentations should look like and include – had a lot of impact on my work and the final product I shared during the April seminars.
The Reflection I Needed to Write
No matter how much training educators experience, the classroom is not a space that can be controlled. Nor should it. Many classroom management techniques center on using oppressive and domineering practices in order to constrain or discipline students. For those teachers who follow the management-as-a-form-of-discipline school of thought, their whole world is demolished when they lose control. The ideas they have about how the school day or lesson should go flies out the window when there weren’t enough handouts printed or a student gets off task or a fire drill occurs.
We faced the biggest fire drill ever when the COVID-19 pandemic struck the globe in early 2020. Despite our best intensions, everything was thrown all out of whack. Educators who were new to incorporating collaborative and interactive learning strategies into their classrooms, as well as veterans of engaging teaching methods, were left to deal with how to complete the semester with little to no help from supervisors, colleagues, and administration.
“This is unprecedented” and “We’re all in this together”
These are two phrases I heard on a regular basis throughout the work-from-home / virtual instruction circumstance in which I was put. A close look at the “new normal” everyone was directed to endure reveals that neither of these slogans are true. While historically schools have never insisted that all students move off of campus, never compelled all faculty to “just put course content online,” and never forced the entire college community into possibly a more dangerous environment in the middle of the semester, most universities have had a framework for virtual/online classes and course content. This shows there is a precedent for teaching online, it’s just that many universities never made sure their infrastructures were strong enough for everyone to use it at once and university faculty have never been supported (or trained) to implement engaging and interactive learning strategies in a virtual classroom setting.
Institutions that support their personnel and pupils do so during the good days and the not-so-good days. If the pandemic has revealed one thing, it has shown faculty, staff, and students alike whether they are seen by their administration as cogs in a machine, as dollar signs, or as honest-to-goodness human people who have worries and anxieties and complications and opinions and feelings. Universities are not people, but they are made up of people and sometimes those people need support and they need checked in on and they need to vent or complain. (This should go without saying, but the people who make up the university includes students.) Below is the opening couple lines of a letter that was sent out to faculty, staff, and stakeholders on April 17th from a university president (the university went to an online-only setting on March 16th):
Are we all in this together if the president of the university hasn’t even considered their faculty and staff for at least a month? What have they been thinking about if reaching out to the people who make up the university just slipped their mind?
Grace Before Grades
Most of my stress and anxiety these last couple months (has it really only been two months??) has come from worrying about my students. My mind would race if I didn’t hear back from one of them or if they didn’t attend a “live” online class meeting. Where were they? What kind of roadblock were they dealing with? Was another member of my class in the hospital or stuck in a house without power? How could I help them overcome this obstacle? My thoughts and questions and concerns interrupted every part of my day and would keep me up at night. I knew I couldn’t help all of my students, but I sure as hell tried. Despite not receiving support, I was adamant that I would check up on every single one of my students on every platform I could think of just to make sure they were doing okay. Most of them eventually got back to me and appreciated me giving them extra time on an assignment or being understanding about what was going on.
Ever since this pandemic started, I have had a phrase that I’ve needed to repeat to myself in order to remind myself of its truth: I cannot change other people; I can only control myself. And while this mantra usually had to do with how safe/unsafe my surroundings are, it also has to do with other people I come in contact with professionally. I can’t make my colleagues understand that giving more assignments online is not the way to make up for not being in an in-person classroom. I can’t force my supervisors to show me compassion. I can’t compel my university to give us all some time and support. But I can do all those things for my students. I can focus on giving my students grace rather than assigning them grades on work that was assigned in a pre-COVID world.
Side note: As I re-learned during a Leading Equity webinar, “when we give out grades during this time of COVID-19, we are grading privilege.”
What will our students take away from all of this? Is having a relaxed schedule best for them - one that allows them to hit the SNOOZE a couple extra times in the morning (or afternoon?), take their time getting ready for their school work, with the opportunity to take snack breaks between activities? Have they realized that they work better while sitting at the kitchen table with sun streaming in and their younger sibling playing in the other room? Will they miss sitting in desks arranged in rows, the back of their classmates' head the first thing they see when they look up from their worksheet? Or will they realize they are not cut out for learning at a distance, that they need a better way to see their friends and classmates and teachers, and that "group work" isn't as bad as they thought a few months ago?
On a personal note, my students are becoming amazing teachers. And while this may not at all be due to anything specific I did, I do hope I was able to impact them in a small way.
I hope they are able to stand up to injustice and support their future students;
I hope they will show empathy and grace to their future students;
I hope they are able to see the strength in diversity, rather than the limitations of it;
I hope they will be able to recognize when their school are not supporting them; and
I hope they will run fast and far away from that institution.
What will our organizations and our departments and Colleges of Education learn from the biggest fire-drill ever? Will we put a pandemic committee in place? Will we find solutions to all the issues we stumbled over? Will we find ways to support the most important part of our entire enterprise - our students?
I hope we all can find ways to do all of this and more.
And Another Thing
It is not my intention to come across as a complainer about the situation in which I find myself. I am fully aware of how privileged I am to have a job and able to work from home and not experiencing any loss of pay or hours. I am also not oblivious to what institutions are doing for our students. Some are providing the opportunity to retroactively change their grades to satisfactory / unsatisfactory; this is a big deal for students so their GPA is not negatively impacted by any obstacles or obstructions they may have encountered this semester. Extending the final grade date also provides students a bit of extra time to submit work. But how can we all do better next time?
Could universities have provided more compassion and decency to everyone in this situation? Definitely. I have seen some universities provide a week or two to faculty, staff, and students to adjust to their "new normal" before going into virtual instruction. Some schools have provided weekly updates to families and faculty from a COVID-19 Team made up of faculty, staff, and community partners that solicit input from students, staff, and faculty on what re-opening campus will look like and how and when it should happen.
These purposeful actions have allowed the self-proclaimed student-friendly and community-focused institutions of higher learning to continue their missions and visions of being committed to access and opportunity for all of their students, no matter their at-home situations. In my experience, organizations find a way to extend kindness when they see it is needed. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.