An Educator’s View from the COVID-19 Trenches

What is it like to be turning your in-person classes to distance learning… in the space of one week’s head start? What analogy should I use to capture this experience?

• Building a plane while flying it? Terrifying.

• Being thrown into the deep end of a pool without having any swimming lessons? Equally terrifying.

This is moving from a manageable work load (with legitimate weekends), to a work load that is probably not sustainable. The Sabbath may save my life.

So much is different. My online teaching veteran colleagues warned me — this is NOT a matter of just transferring what was done before into an online environment. They were so right.

Indeed, I’ve had to blow up what I do and rebuild it to work in an online platform.

I’ve had to triage what is really, really important from what is nice to do/cover, but not critical. (P.S. Triage is NOT comfortable.)

I am moving from a world where I’m pretty certain what will work to a world where I’m not certain at all what will work.

• The course schedule doesn’t translate. (Many of my assignments are now pass/fail.)

• The pacing has to be different. (I have had to slow waaaaay down, and then put on the brakes again.)

• The course policies are different. (I now bend this way and that for students who don’t or cannot meet deadlines.)

I am banking on the fact that some things are the same, that good teaching is good teaching no matter what the platform.

• Clarity of instruction.

• Clear expectations.

• Purposeful curricular design.

Knock on wood. Fingers crossed. Prayers ascending. So. Much. Prayer.

I have chosen to record some lectures and post them online. What a precipitous learning curve that has been! Editing. Cutting. Why does it take an hour to create a 10-minute lecture?

And I don’t even have a cat to irritatingly sit on my keyboard or a dog to bark in the middle of my lectures or a young child to come busting into the room. I really shouldn’t be complaining.

Besides those asynchronous lectures, I meet with my students once a week online. Now, instead of the easy comfortability of leading a face-to-face classroom, I’m navigating whole new waters.

• How do I make connections with students when all I hear are their occasional voices? Should I require them to show their faces?

• Where does my eye contact go?

• How is the lighting and audio?

• What happens if I push this button or that one? (Oops. That disconnects me from this meeting.)

• What if I want to show my screen? Which button is that? (Oh. So. Many. Buttons.)

All of this amidst the fact that I have a comfortable relationship with technology. What about my colleagues that do not? The learning curve must be daunting.

Have I mentioned that this is SO much work?

I see it in my colleagues’ faces and hear it in their voices. Exhaustion. A sense of grief for the loss of the familiar. A bereavement at losing the structure and familiarity of how we taught before. We are worried for our students. We are caring for our families and our communities.

This is a crucible. It is bringing out the creative. It is revealing resilience. It is making space for growth. It is providing opportunities to try new pedagogies. It is requiring space for prayer. It is highlighting priorities. And I can tell you that I am watching the best come out in those professors, staff, and administrators around me. We are doing our best. We are adapting as fast as we can. We have to… and we will… come out of this better educators.

All this despite the fact that no one signed up for THIS. Not us. Not our students.

Which brings me back to that plane analogy…. Not only is it terrifying to be building the plane while flying it… imagine how our students must feel as passengers?

Their lives have been upended, and yet they forge ahead, sometimes in the midst of great difficulties — poor internet, challenging family dynamics, economic uncertainties.

So, I keep repeating the mantra, “First, do no harm.”

I keep repeating the prayer, “Help me figure this out. Put your hand over my students.”

In the midst of all these uncertainties, I will admit that unexpected benefits have emerged:

• I can now don the same pair of comfortable pants every single day — which I’m not brave enough to do when teaching live.

• I can now wear all my ugliest shoes — without fear of public mockery.

• My socks now don’t have to match my outfit — or match at all.

• I answer my students emails faster; I answer them even at odd hours — because they need not a breath more of uncertainty in their lives.

• I use the curling iron on my hair more — because now I know what my students see when I lecture, and unruly locks of hair are surprisingly distracting.

I miss my students terribly. All of them.

And that’s what it’s been like in the COVID-19 trenches for me this quarter.

But now I must take my leave. I have a plane to build… and fly.

WATCH: Tammy McGuire shares “a journey through the making of an online lecture, illustrating the challenges of recording material for distance learning.”

Tammy McGuire, PhD, is a communication professor at Pacific Union College.

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

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