The Trending Prof

Anita Woods Ph.D., University Educator
Higher Ed: I need to grieve the past

Higher Ed: I need to grieve the past

After a hard few years in my job, this last semester before COVID-19 hit us, was going so well. I LOVED making changes to my teaching practice. I had found again what it was I enjoyed so much about teaching…watching students get excited about learning. Experimentation with active learning was totally worth it. I felt that the barrier between myself and my students melt away and that they were participating in their education. It was amazing.

And then that Thursday happened. I was given a heads up earlier in the day that a very big announcement was coming about all schools. I was in shock and didn’t believe that was our near future. I wasn’t unaware of worldly events, I just never considered it would become directly personal. Just like that, within 4 hours of leaving work, my kids’ school was closed for at least 3 weeks and our school announced its closure and reset for a fully online end of the semester. It was shocking.

The last 9 weeks have been a whirlwind. I went into self-preservation mode as I could only focus on the next problem, instead of all the future challenges. I knew there was a mountain in front of me. I had to practice what I often tell my students when they feel overwhelmed, take it one task at a time, one problem at a time and check it off the list, then move on. Entering into social isolation, with my kiddos, and pivoting to all online in a matter of a weekend was just the first mountain and I couldn’t look beyond the first few days.

Pivoting has been the word for weeks now, a new problem, a new challenge, pivot. Making the changes to our courses was exhausting, because it wasn’t just for my two classes, but for our whole department and helping other departments do the same. Sharing intel I have learned along the way about our learning management system, helping solve problems, trying to plan for the needs ahead of us. I felt the gravity even more because I became fully responsible for my kids education, maintaining their feelings of safety and well being, but also having to do an enormous amount of work at the same time. There was so much screen time for my babies while I went from zoom call to zoom call, email to email, and also bouncing between a flurry of text messages as we tried to grapple with how we would get it all done.

And, in my new role, I was now the proud owner of 20-course sites, helping to oversee the organization of new online content, revised syllabi, and new plans for final exams and take-home assignments. Colleagues absolutely stepped up and without them, it would have been impossible, but I still felt that at the end of it all, I was responsible if there was a failure in the delivery of any of our courses, and I couldn’t let that happen.

I don’t keep emotions in, they certainly come out. I have cried however, in places I don’t usually cry. On camera as I said farewell to my third year students, not being face to face, but over a disconnected video post. When I tried to say goodbye to my fourth year thesis students, but couldn’t even get it together enough to wish them the best for their futures, so I wrote it, but the words didn’t feel good enough. I grieved the ending of our school year.

But this is not the place where I can stay. I have grieved and am grieving the past of higher education, but need to look ahead to the future. That future will certainly not look like it did pre-COVID-19, at least not soon enough for me. What our new normal is, we are still working that out for our courses. But despite the losses, there are huge opportunities ahead and that is where I need to rest because otherwise, I won’t survive. I have read over and over again that good teaching and pedagogy can happen in any format. Face to face or fully online. Students can still learn, they can still be inspired and technology is a POWERFUL tool that can help us achieve that. We may actually learn how to do some things better and those changes may persist. I will always probably prefer face to face interaction with students, but until that can be done safely in large groups, adapting our practice is what needs to happen. Tomorrow starts the actually planning phase and for that I am excited. My hope is that our new normal is in some ways better than our past.

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