The thing about teaching is that people tend to take it for granted. That’s the only way I can explain the common institutional policies around preparing students to be future faculty. Our institution, well known for cultivating curious minds, and receiving billions of dollars in federal research funding, is consistently identified as a top school of public health in the country. Yet we consistently had our graduating students requesting—insisting—that we shift our priorities and focus on more diligently preparing future graduates for their roles, not just as researchers, but also as teachers and educators. We were asked to design a course that would solve this problem.
The scope of the task was enormous—make a course that equips students to be excellent teachers—and we had limited time to figure it out. We debated what course content to include, when the course would be offered, whether it would be required and for whom, whether it would be offered face to face or online, and on and on. Our plan covered a full range of relevant learning theory, frameworks, and models. We also believed it was critical to incorporate opportunities for students to engage with and learn from each other’s experiences, reflect on these conversations, and practice what they’d learned. Theory, frameworks, models, reflection, discussion, practice, and modeling—we had to fit all this into an 8-week term.
Over the next 6 months, we composed learning objectives, carefully curated course materials, wrote assignments, created rubrics and syllabi, and gathered feedback through a series of meetings with our department’s curriculum committee. By the time we received approval from the school level, we were both exhausted and exhilarated. Our course was designed with the students in mind. It was unique in that our goal was to introduce students to the fundamentals of teaching and examine with them the relationship between teaching and learning. Through critical reflection on various learning theories they would develop their own philosophy of teaching. Through their assignments, they would practice relevant skills, and we would introduce them to tools that would help them implement their course plans. Through it all, we would serve as models who were learning along with them. We felt fully prepared and were ready to offer our course in the next academic term.
Best Laid Plans
Where I'm [Krystal] from, we have a saying in our dialect (patois) “man a plan an’ God a laugh”. The version I've heard most frequently here in the States is “if you want to see God laugh, make a plan.” We had made a solid plan.
One week before we were scheduled to start teaching, we received word that the university would not be offering any face-to-face courses for the foreseeable future. COVID-19 dramatically and unexpectedly shifted the way that things were done, and we had no choice but to adapt. Our carefully arranged, active and engaging course content would have to be offered through our online Learning Management System (LMS). Twice weekly class sessions would be offered synchronously via Zoom and students who chose to stay enrolled would have the choice to take our class for a grade, pass/fail, or audit.
It probably goes without saying that this caused quite a lot of anxiety. We say that it’s possible to maintain engagement in online classes but on a practical level, could we really? This course was designed to model theories and frameworks that centered active engagement and critical reflection. We built in opportunities for students to practice what we were teaching them. How could we hope to keep students’ attention when there was so much going on in the world, when we were confined to our homes, when necessities were in short supply, when the global death toll just kept rising? We had to shift our expectations. We had to acknowledge that we were all experiencing something that none of us had ever dealt with. We had to extend grace to our students and be ok with things not going the way we planned. We also had to extend that grace to ourselves.
Make It Work Mode
So, we shifted into “make it work” mode. We went all in with our new objectives—extend grace and offer support. We took stock of the constraints we were under—twice-a-week, 80-minute synchronous sessions, potential network interruptions and other technological challenges, and fewer opportunities for one-on-one discussions (e.g. pair and shares). And with a week to go before the class started, we made it work.
We started each session with a personal check-in. We were open and honest about how we were feeling. We talked about what it was like for us in quarantine, caring for our families and how that was impacting us and our work. Our blend of honest struggle, support for each other, and a little humor made space for students to do the same. Not surprisingly, this helped us to quickly build a strong community in our short eight weeks together. On the advice of our departmental leadership (which was phenomenal, by the way) we revised our grading procedures and gave our students the option to choose which assignments they wanted to complete. We encouraged them to complete only those they found personally and professionally useful. We turned our hard deadlines into “suggested” submission dates. Where students requested extensions, they were granted without requiring an explanation. We spent time writing thoughtful responses to assignments, which included alternate ways to think about the topic at hand. We asked them to evaluate their past experiences within the context of their new knowledge and to forecast how they would apply this new knowledge to their future roles.
And in turn, our students responded with exceptional care and thoughtfulness. Most students attended every virtual session. And like us, many noted that they found our time together to be a respite from the unending anxiety of the times. Halfway through the term, we asked students to complete a brief survey about their experience in the class thus far. The feedback was both constructive and encouraging. One student who proclaimed herself to be absolutely “not a morning person” told us that even though the class was a little early for her liking, she always made the extra effort to be in attendance because the discussions were so rich. Another student, a physicist by training, talked about how our course content helped her to do her job better.
In the midst of it all, they were learning! Through their participation in discussions and weekly reflection assignments, the students demonstrated their ability to utilize terminology appropriately and ask insightful questions about the theoretical ties to curricular frameworks. They modeled critical reflection and knowledge transference with stories of how they practiced teaching and learning methods in their other classes and identified where they needed improvement. In the middle of some of the worst collective circumstances any of us had experienced, our students shined. They were present, engaged, involved and supportive of each other and of us. And, even though we made all assignments optional, nearly all students completed—and conveyed exceptional growth in—every assignment: including weekly discussions, written reflections, two drafts of a personal teaching philosophy, a lesson design paper and presentation. Each week, they gave their peers thoughtful and measured feedback on their performance facilitating discussions. Amazingly, given the circumstances, we all came to see ourselves as a community of scholars who learn together and support each other.
This was too good to be true. In our perfect plan, before notions of a pandemic, we could barely imagine such a response. That our students would rally around our collective work and come to it with such love, support and commitment was inspiring. In the end, our students helped us meet our new course objectives—extend grace and offer support. But the question remains—with little planning, inconsistent technology, and elevated stress how did this happen? And, can we make it happen again?
Choosing Love over Fear
Behind closed doors, we sometimes share our deepest fears as instructors. There is always talk of “how do we get students to do the readings,” “what happens if they don’t get it,” “what if this doesn’t work,” “what if I don’t know the answer to their question,” or “what if they don’t respect me.” Most of these fears are tied up in the elitism and exclusion of academia. Some of them are imagined, some of them are all too real (just take a look at the literature on student feedback for instructors who are women).
We generally have curricula that avoid talking or learning about teaching. And in so doing, we perpetuate a pedagogy that is built on instilling and reconstituting these fears and exclusions in another generation of instructors. There are simple things like reading the same text from decades ago, instead of diversifying the syllabus. There are the assessments that use outdated or biased measures of success. Then, there are the things we rarely think about, like changing the setup of the room, designing new activities, or collectively reflecting on our lived experiences beyond course content. When we adopt conventional teaching metrics and methods, we often knowingly or unknowingly teach from a place of fear (how many times have you heard, “well, I’m not an expert in that...”). This can make course objectives and assessment measures so narrow and strict that we can sometimes squeeze the learning right out of them in our attempt to control the outcome.
Learning is essentially working through uncertainty. We don’t know the answer, and we work to discover something new. It is uncomfortable, stress and anxiety inducing, and hard to predict. We sometimes try to avoid this discomfort by attempting to control the process. The problem is, in doing so we sometimes miss authentic learning. Teaching through a pandemic made all the structures and systems and biases and fears that we use to control the outcomes of classes nearly irrelevant. There was no controlling this—everything was uncertain. And so, everything was a process of learning. We had to find a different way of doing things. And, we had the institutional freedom to try those things!
In times of uncertainty and fear, what I find most helpful is love and care as I struggle. Why would learning, since it’s its own process of working through uncertainty, be any different? That’s why we changed our objectives to ones of grace and support. That’s what we needed in uncertainty, and that’s what we wanted our students to experience in their learning. We looked to others who have asked these questions, like bell hooks and her ideas on radical love. We didn’t just teach their work, we modeled it. We asked students to write down what they were thinking about readings and how they related to their life. We wrote long, thoughtful responses, asked questions, and shared our own stories and anxieties. We tried to understand and discover, together.
We told students to only engage in what they found useful, without consequence. Quite literally, “if this assignment won’t help you in your professional career or personal growth, don’t do it,” which has proved a valuable lens for designing work. We invited revisions to our activities and assignments, and students offered suggestions that we adopted. The more we loosened our grip on narrow measures of success, the more nuanced, creative, and complicated the learning became. Students processed their identities in relation to teaching and academia. They struggled to find new ways of planning and learning. They developed meaningful motivations for teaching. And they engaged deeply with complicated theories and models of instruction.
Amid all this focus on support, collaboration, and personal reflection, I’d put their knowledge of learning theory and design to the test against any conventional metric. The fears of losing instruction time to too much reflection or lost motivation because of relaxed grading were, it turns out, baseless. What we saw was that by inviting our students to be who they are and concentrating on supporting their goals as people and professionals, we did not sacrifice their learning. In fact, our students made some of the most impressive gains I’ve seen as a teacher. Our students were not simply learning academic material, they were using it to change who they wanted to be as teachers and learners--we were a part of transformational learning. We acknowledged and dealt with anxiety and discomfort and the unknown, and because of that we engaged in the fullness of what learning can be. I look forward to a time without pandemic, to a time when we can be in the same room again. But I know our teaching has indelibly changed. Discomfort, uncertainty, and learning will always be a part of teaching—it's time to let our guard down, and welcome them in.