As we begin the spring 2022 semester, we are met with yet another uncertain path ahead. Will I have to teach remotely? Will I be able to teach in person? Will I have the option? What will be the option for students? Will all of this change in a few weeks? How are the students going to handle another stressful semester? The list goes on. I certainly do not have the answers to any of the aforementioned questions, but the recent (and not so recent) uncertainty has prompted me to spend time reflecting on my courses and teaching practices.
But, before I dive into that, here’s a bit on my background to help with the context of this reflective exercise. First, I am relatively new to the teaching profession, and I started my first tenure track position in the fall of 2017, after an exhilarating and challenging visiting position the year before (2016-2017). As a visiting professor I found my calling as an educator and mentor, and while I was working more than I ever thought possible, I loved every minute of it. As you may remember from your first few years of teaching, these first years are filled with exponential growth as an instructor, faculty member, and person. I was developing new courses almost every semester and/or making significant changes to previously used courses. I worked with colleagues at my institution and others, soliciting feedback on how I could improve assessments, student engagement, and advising. Needless to say, very little was the same semester to semester – lots of editing and revising. And right as I’m starting to get the swing of things, mid-way through year 3, BAM – COVID! As a relative newcomer to the classroom, when COVID hit in the spring of 2020, I had a mere 3.5 years of teaching in the pre-COVID era and very little consistency in my coursework (or so I thought). And since then, every semester since the start of COVID has been different in terms of course delivery, assessments, and student engagement. Some courses have been fully remote, some hybrid, some in person, some switched back and forth with student options also constantly changing. It’s exhausting to think about.
As a result of all of this inconsistency, when I started planning for yet another uncertain semester (spring 2022) I decided to spend some time thinking about what has been consistent in my courses throughout the years (both before and after COVID). To obtain additional data, I also reviewed those dreaded course evaluations in order to review feedback that wasn’t from my own biased brain. While somewhat scary, this reflective activity allowed me to sort out a few things that paint a clear picture of “my classroom” regardless of the delivery method or state of the world:
- ORGANIZED – If you were to run a word cloud on all of my course evals the largest word would most likely be “organized” or some iteration of that. And for those that know me, this probably isn’t a huge surprise. I am organized, perhaps a bit over-organized, and this is very clear in my course design. Students take this as a positive – I know, or at least look like I know, exactly where this course is headed, and they trust me to lead them on this journey.
- OVER-COMMUNICATION – The second largest word on the world cloud would be “communication”, and possibly to the point of over-communication. While not every student requires reminders of assignments or expectations, some do. Different modes of communication are helpful too: in person, e-mail, LMS, video chat, etc. Students seem to need more communication during the COVID semesters than in previous ones and I’ve found that my ability to “over-communicate” helps students stay on track and always know the expectations. Plus, I’m hoping that my practice of over-communication helps students feel more comfortable reaching out to me when they need help.
- ACTIVE – From the beginning I did not want my classroom to be one of those that students just passively attended. I wanted them to be excited to come to class at 8:00 am because they knew that they were going to be put to work and be engaged in their learning. This is absolutely a hard sell, especially at 8:00 am, and it takes time for some students to warm up to the idea, while a few never do (and they note that very clearly in the evals). However, for the majority of students, the active classroom is a welcoming and fun learning environment (these comments are more pleasant to read in the evals). Plus, it’s just more fun to teach!
- FLEXIBLE – While flexibility has been of utmost importance during COVID, I noticed that I also had a bit of flexibility in my pre-COVID classroom as well. Flexibility with learning speeds and styles, flexibility with my own content deadlines, flexibility with student requests, and even homework or project deadlines (to an extent). This was absolutely something that I had to work on early on in my teaching career, but I learned a lot from listening to my students and their needs in the classroom and they appreciate my ability to work with them as they struggle.
- CHALLENGING and SUPPORTIVE – Students note that my courses are challenging, but feasible. Yes, I have high expectations, of which they are aware (see above), but they also know I’m here to help them and work with them when they are struggling (with the course or otherwise). The connections we can develop with students are unlike any other, and I love seeing them grow throughout their educational journey.
- EXCITING – Students commented on my ability to be “excited” about anatomy and physiology. (Who isn’t?!?!) I don’t know if this is just because I have more energy than they do at 8:00 am, but I’ll take it. A&P is EXCITING and apparently that is clear both in person and on camera. Also, apparently, I appear taller on camera.
Now, while things are still a bit crazy and uncertain, I encourage you to reflect on your own teaching practices both before and during COVID to uncover some commonalities in your classroom. We will probably never go back to exactly the way things were pre-COVID, so stopping and reflecting may be a great exercise to help move forward. Spend some time noting what is similar and maybe even what is different. Particularly if you are new to this profession, such as I am, this activity may help you learn a bit more about your teaching style and classroom practices. Then share your revelations with others and encourage them to do the same, perhaps even in the comments section below.
Postscript: Total coincidence that this is similar to the January 13th blog topic, which is also a great reflective exercise. Looks like we are on similar paths. Happy reflecting!
|Jennifer Ann Stokes is an Assistant Professor of Kinesiology at Southwestern University in Georgetown, TX. Jennifer received her PhD in Biomedical Sciences from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Jennifer’s courses include Human Anatomy and Physiology (I and II), Nutritional Physiology, Intro to Human Anatomy and Physiology, Medical Terminology, and Psychopharmacology. Jennifer is also actively engaged with undergraduates in basic science research (www.stokeslab.com) and in her free time enjoys trail running, cycling, hiking, and baking cookies and cakes for her colleagues and students.|