The coronavirus pandemic has affected so many aspects of everyday life, probably none more so than education. Students, faculty, staff and administrations from pre-school through college are trying to cope with the changes.
Making things more difficult is no one knows when the education system in the United States will return to its pre-pandemic ways. How long will online learning last? Will it become the new norm?
“That is something we may have to continue to do for the next few years,” Thomas Nelson President Towuanna Porter Brannon said in her introductory remarks at the College’s annual faculty colloquium Jan. 4.
In a sign of the times, the event was virtual.
The College’s Center for Teaching and Learning, which is led by geology instructor Lynsey LeMay, oversaw the event. It consisted of four sessions, with an overarching theme of lessons learned in the past 18 months.
“I think it’s always good to take a step back and think what is it that we’ve learned,” LeMay said. “What did we learn about ourselves as faculty? Maybe how we teach? New teaching strategies? What did we learn about students and student learning?”
She added educators need to think in a pedagogical way, not just the technical aspects of how to teach in an online environment.
“That was the driving theme for this year’s colloquium,” LeMay said.
The day’s guest speaker was Dr. Danielle R. Leek, director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning at Richmond’s J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College where she is also dean of Online Learning and Instructional Excellence. In a presentation titled “Lessons Learned and Next Steps for Teaching with Humility, Passion and Persistence,” Leek said the pandemic resulted in educators discovering a great deal about themselves as instructors and about teaching.
“What we've really learned is stuff that we actually already knew. It's just information about teaching that I think we had forgotten. And so, the argument that I want to make to you today is that there are three fundamental lessons about teaching that we need to go back to …,” said Leek, citing humility, passion, and persistence as those lessons.
Of humility, Leek said, many situations arose during online classes that were humbling for educators and out of line with the “teacher or professor ego.” Technology hiccups, being “Zoom bombed” by pets and family members, and other unexpected things all reminded educators that they are human just like their students.
As for the second lesson, passion, Leek said the best teaching comes from the passion educators have for their subject matter. “ … at the root of the best teaching -- the most important and most effective teaching -- will always be the passion that we have for our subject matter, first and foremost," she said.
An instructor who brings passion above all else, said Leek, will translate that love of the subject matter to students. “ …that is the value add that each and every one of you brings to your classes. That is what will matter and that's what our students will see. It's exactly what our students saw all the way through the pandemic,” she stressed.
Lastly, she said persistence is important. Since the pandemic began and many societal issues arose in the last two years, students strongly indicate they want courses to be more impactful for their lives. In response teachers have to be steadfast in thinking about ways to connect courses to the experiences that are happening now -- things that are happening in the world now.
"For a student trying to find that relationship between my class and the world outside ... their life that they are dealing with ... I have to continue to be persistent in drawing those connections," she noted.
Leek has more than 20 years of experience in higher education focused on faculty development. Among her accolades is the Michigan Campus Compact award for excellence in Service-Learning, and she was named a Presidential Service-Learning Scholar by Grand Valley State University. Leek also received an Open Education Research Fellowship for her investigation of digital equity issues in higher education. Her publications and research center on strategies for measuring and promoting civic learning and equity in face-to-face and online college classrooms. She has a doctoral degree in communication from the University of Iowa.
As the colloquium continued, optimism remained the tone despite news of having to start another semester with most classes online. Students, teachers and staff understand this is not the perfect way to learn, but it benefits everyone if they all try to make the most of it. Yes, there have been, and will continue to be, challenges, but that also provides opportunities for growth.
Biology professor Adrianna Hardage, who was on one of the panels, said teaching online has been a positive experience for her overall. It was challenging, yet rewarding.
“It’s not something I would have picked to go through, but I’m glad I did,” she said.
Others on the faculty panel, Valerie Burge-Hall, Sergio Maria-Fagundez and Michael Weiser, had similar experiences. They learned about themselves, became better teachers, and had a better understanding of the student experience.
Their advice to fellow teachers? Show your human side, have empathy for students and what they are going through because this isn’t easy on them either, make connections with students and keep passion at the center of what you do.
For the first time since the January faculty colloquium started in 2014, students were included on a panel. They were Amy Gonzalez, Lisa Barron and Christian Banks. They stressed this new way of learning isn’t something they planned for, either, so they also are learning as they go.
They want professors who are relatable, flexible, enthusiastic and make them want to go to class. Interactive lessons are helpful. They want to be treated with respect, because they have problems, too. Many are juggling work, school and a family life. When having classes over Zoom, there will be interruptions (from pets, children, etc.).
And don’t be afraid to learn from your students. They don’t expect you to know everything.
LeMay was more than pleased with the attendance, noting all sessions had at least 50 participants, with the opening sessions having 90. The final session of the day, led by Leek, was a partnered workshop between the two institutions.
“There were far more Thomas Nelson faculty than there were Reynolds faculty,” LeMay said. “It was exciting to see such strong participation from Thomas Nelson faculty.”
LeMay said the colloquium is a time to reflect on our teaching and learning, think about best practices, and focus on pedagogy and teaching each year.
Brannon said it’s important to take advantage of opportunities such as this because today’s teaching methods might become routine.
“I’m grateful to see that we are having this conversation, and I say that because I don’t know if we can look forward to a time in the very near future where this may not be part of our norm,” she said.
In case you missed the Jan. 4 event, access the discussions here.