Teaching During a Pandemic

Teaching During a Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has made life complicated for everyone. In the space of a few short weeks, it fundamentally changed the way people live and work. Few industries were hit as hard as education, which has always been a predominantly face-to-face experience. 

When over 200 U.S. colleges and universities closed due to the pandemic, educators were given an incredible challenge. They were told to continue providing quality education while transitioning their courses completely online under the most stressful global conditions in decades. The result was that most educators took a crash course in working remotely. 

Teaching is an all-consuming job under normal conditions. Working from home only exacerbates that. Balancing working at a computer all day, setting up schedules, managing student communications, and reworking multiple syllabi is a lot to handle. Most educators managed to make it to the end of the semester, but many were unsatisfied with the transition. 

Now, the universities and colleges that closed are keeping their Summer 2020 semesters online. Most are also requesting that their faculty be prepared to teach Fall 2020 online. The on-the-fly adjustments teachers made this spring must now be adjusted to work long-term. 

Teaching online is nothing like teaching in-person classes. Conscientious educators are working to adjust their approach to teaching to help maintain positive, productive environments for both students and themselves. It’s a shift in mindset. The goal should not be to perfectly replicate in-person classes — it should be to make the most of what online lessons can offer. 

There are struggles inherent to teaching during a pandemic. As an educator, you’re handling new situations both professionally and personally. So are your students. Taking the time to acknowledge this and reset your focus and your standards will help make the teaching process less stressful. Here are some of the most important aspects to consider when teaching during this pandemic. 

Acknowledge This as a Transitionary Period

Life post-COVID-19 will not look the same as it did before the pandemic. It’s impossible to say how things will be different, but change is inevitable. That makes these months during the worst of the disease a transitory period. 

The one thing that can be said about the current situation is that it will pass. We are all working through uncertainties of the global pandemic. This uncertain, fluctuating situation places a burden on everyone above and beyond our normal responsibilities. 

The additional workload of transitioning courses online on top of teaching while dealing with the pandemic is a stress unique to educators. Many have never taught an online course. Even those that have taught online may be working with classes that they prefer to teach in-person. Some of these educators are investigating new and exciting methods of teaching online, while others are trying to maintain the standard classroom setting through virtual means. Either way, most are facing struggles and setbacks regularly. 

That’s okay.

Institutions were forced to ask their educators to give them the moon: do everything, plus some extra work, in an incredibly stressful situation, without errors. That’s just not possible. As an educator on the front lines, it’s important to be reasonable with yourself. You can only do so much. Even if the last semester didn’t go quite how you envisioned it, you still accomplished an incredible feat. 

Even long-time distance-learning educators run into problems and challenges. They can attest to the fact that it is pretty much impossible to shift to online learning overnight without some form of trial and error. It takes time, mistakes, and effort for your students to learn new ideas and systems. It’s important to give yourself the same grace and understanding. 

Planning for Problems

When trial and error are necessary parts of the process, you should plan for problems in advance. They are inevitable — planning for them helps resolve problems more quickly. Having room for adjustment in your plan will help you make peace with the problems that do come up. 

One way to prepare for problems is to use a variety of technology when you teach. Relying on a single system or tool guarantees that things grind to a halt if it breaks. Diversifying your toolbox gives you more options and more resiliency when problems arise. 

Communication

The most important place to diversify is in how you communicate with students. Communication is key in every educational environment, but it’s even more important with distance learning. Relying completely on your email or your school’s LMS will lead to missed messages and confusion. Instead, offer your students several ways to keep in contact. 

  • Texting: Most forms of communication today rely on the internet. That means that an internet outage can cut you off completely. Giving your students a number they can text allows them to shoot you a question even if they don’t have access to the internet at the moment. You can get free texting numbers through Google if you don’t want to give out your personal number. 
  • Facebook/WhatsApp: Most students talk to each other through Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. Emails can feel too formal for shy students. Giving your students a more casual communication option will help them reach out more often.  
  • One-on-one video chats: Scheduling a few check-in points over the semester will help keep students engaged. In a course that’s fully online, you don’t have the opportunity to chat before and after class. Scheduling video chats with every student gives you the chance to talk and get the face time that helps many succeed. Plus, as an educator, seeing your students and answering questions is a good way to boost your own morale. 
  • Full-class video chats: A class that’s completely online may not register as important in the way that an in-person course does. Scheduling course-wide video chats helps you keep students engaged and interacting with their classmates. 

Course Delivery Methods

Another important way to bring technology into your class is by diversifying your course delivery. Recording a lecture is a great first step, but there are more opportunities available. Giving students additional resources will help you teach the material more effectively.

If you provide a video lecture over a slideshow, consider uploading both a transcription of the lecture and the slideshow itself separately. If students have poor internet connections, they may not be able to watch the video lecture. Providing the slides and the lecture notes will help them learn despite difficult conditions. 

You should also consider adjusting the resources that you ask your students to use. Many students no longer have access to their school library, textbooks, and research materials. Try adjusting your required readings and assignments to reflect that. 

Point students towards online resources like Google Scholar and free online research databases. If you need them to read a specific article, send it to them digitally. Making their lives easier will lead to better work and less stress for everyone. 

Test Proctoring

Finally, testing is one of the biggest failure points in online education. When students and teachers can’t gather together, maintaining the integrity of the testing process can seem impossible. Luckily, that’s not the case. 

Online proctoring services are designed to overcome this exact hurdle. Using an online proctoring service allows your students to take tests whenever and wherever they happen to be. They also keep students focused on the test and prevent academic dishonesty from ever becoming a possibility. 

A perk of online proctoring is that it allows you to reuse tests you’ve already prepared instead of trying to rewrite them to account for online learning. That’s one less thing you need to do. Best of all, it allows you to directly compare results between online learning and previous in-person classes on the same test. The results might be illuminating.

Reclaim Your Routine

Humans are creatures of routine. There have been dozens of studies done on how routines affect students. They all point to routines as an integral part of the learning experience. The pandemic stripped away the routines students were used to and forced them to find new ones.

This is also the case for educators. Moving to online learning has thrown the normal patterns of the workday into chaos. If routines are important for students to learn, they’re even more crucial for the educators who are in charge. The move to online has led many teachers to feel like they’re on call 24/7 due the new fluidity of remote learning. That’s bad for your morale and productivity. 

However, you can reclaim your routine. It may not look exactly like it did during classroom teaching, but anything is better than nothing. There are a few simple steps you can take to make a routine that works for you. 

Create a Scheduled To-Do List

Classroom teaching comes with a schedule built into the day. Classes are taught at certain times, office hours are slotted into the gaps, and, when you go home for the day, your students don’t come with you. Online teaching removes a lot of that structure, so it’s up to you to recreate it. 

Organizing a simple scheduled to-do list can help you find the structure that you’ve lost. It can also help you streamline important tasks by breaking them down into simple steps. You’ve likely created to-do lists since you were a student — this just involves assigning times to your tasks. 

A good place to start is by making a list of every task you’d like to complete. You can then prioritize those tasks based on importance, the time they’ll take to accomplish, and any other key factors. Once you know what you want to get done each day, you can start scheduling. 

One benefit of online teaching is that you can schedule things at times that work for you. If you’re better able to focus in the morning, you can schedule high-focus tasks then. On the other hand, night owls might find that they’re most able to handle grading or answering emails late at night. Use the flexibility of online teaching to your advantage. 

One helpful strategy is to schedule related tasks for a single block of time. Office hours and grading papers can occupy the same time slot, for example, so you can discuss students’ work with them if they show up. You should also set aside specific time just to read and respond to emails and messages. Keeping related tasks together helps your brain switch from task to task more smoothly. 

Set Aside Space

Teaching in-person involves a physical transition at the start and end of the work day: you go to work and you come home. That transition actually helps your brain switch gears. Putting yourself in an environment designed and designated for work makes it easier to focus. Meanwhile, coming home at the end of the day allows you to relax and unwind. 

Do your best to replicate this at home to firm up your routine. Set aside a space that’s for teaching and nothing else. Manage your emails there, do research and write classwork there, and record your lectures there if you can. Then leave that space when you’re not working. This will help separate your work from the rest of your life. It will help you focus when you need to work, and help you relax when you don’t. 

Schedule and Enforce the End of Your Work Day

When students are watching lectures or doing coursework at all times of day, they will be sending emails and questions 24/7 as well. It can be tempting to respond to these questions immediately. However, if you have more than a few students, that will quickly become overwhelming. Downtime is important if you want to give your students your best effort; remaining available all the time will just burn you out. 

Instead, give yourself a firm cut-off time. At 6:00 PM or whatever time works for you, shut off your computer. Tell your students that you’re unavailable after that time, and that you’ll respond to questions the next day. Then stick to that

Knowing that you have a time when you’ll be done for the day makes it easier to focus on your work. If you want a supportive routine, then you need to include an end to your day. Your students deserve a focused, productive teacher, and you deserve downtime. Reclaiming a routine will help you provide a healthy atmosphere for everyone involved. 

Reevaluate Stringent Course and Grading Policies

Many courses are designed around strict course, grading, or deadline policies. Normally, these policies are in place to ensure that students live up to a standard of academic excellence. However, the pandemic has ensured that these are not normal times. 

Acknowledging the extraordinary circumstances students are facing means that you should reconsider strict policies. Refocusing some aspects of existing course structure and curriculum will better serve everyone involved. The director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching at Grand View University, Kevin Gannon, says he’s a “big proponent of adjusting our grading significantly.”

Today, students are facing new and unexpected disadvantages. They may be handling childcare, extra shifts at work, or a lack of financial resources. Furthermore, without access to in-person tutoring or support services, students are more likely than ever to face academic and mental health struggles. 

Grading students as if these conditions are not endemic is simply unfair. According to Gannon, grading students as if everything is normal is “the equivalent of giving someone a swimming test during a flood.” In fact, it might be best for everyone to reconsider your curriculum entirely. 

Consider a New Curriculum

Some curricula require levels of one-on-one or in-class participation that just aren’t feasible online. If you’re working with a curriculum that’s designed to be delivered in a classroom, you might benefit from replacing it. 

The challenge lies in finding a curriculum that can meet your institution’s standards without grading students unfairly. Your students still need to walk away from the class with the knowledge that matters. A good online curriculum addresses three primary challenges:

  • Accessibility: An online course is worth nothing if students can’t get to the materials. A good online course is easy to access for both teachers and students. 
  • Customization: Every institution has its own requirements of certain classes. A good online curriculum must be flexible enough to meet your institution’s educational standards. 
  • Clarity: Every good course should be clear and easy to understand. Quality education makes even difficult or complex topics seem simple. Clear, definitive materials are a requirement for good curricula. 

Try looking for online curriculum solutions that include tests and proctoring methods. That saves you the effort of trying to design extra materials. Finding an online curriculum that provides all of the above guarantees that you and your students will have a streamlined, successful semester. 

Few educators ever anticipated having to teach during a pandemic. However, teachers around the nation have risen to the challenge. By accepting this transitory time, reclaiming routine, and reconsidering your course content, you can create a successful course experience for your students and yourself. Online teaching during a pandemic will continue to affect everyone, but you can still give students the education they deserve. 

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