By Mya Gregory
The majority of the professors at Grand Rapids Community College had never taught online courses prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Professors, like many students, have experienced the same awkward transition to Zoom, while also being quarantined in their homes, not being able to see friends and family, and having to completely rethink the way they teach. And it hasn’t been easy. Five professors from GRCC shared their experiences with COVID-19 and the transition to virtual learning.
When asked about how the transition to online teaching has been, many professors said they found it very difficult, challenging, and overwhelming. Michael Sikkema, an English professor, describes the process as similar to “driving along a curvy, hilly road in a heavy fog. There was a lot of looking for the white line and following it.”
“The transition was very overwhelming,” said Rachel Whitmore, an American Sign Language professor. “There were so many resource emails being sent and what people forgot there is a learning curve to every online resource.”
Many professors spent their entire summers completely re-thinking how to teach their classes. They spent hours taking courses on online teaching, developing a new schedule for their course, recording lecture videos, and searching for additional teaching materials.
Daniel Anderson, a professor of philosophy, shares his struggles with the transition to online courses, saying that it was, “really challenging at first because I had to learn new technology, and had to anticipate problems and questions from students.”
When asked what their greatest frustrations were in the transition to online teaching, these professors shared many of the same answers. Anderson mainly focused on his frustration on the lack of personal communication.
“As an extroverted person, accustomed to teaching sometimes with an animated, theatrical approach, online teaching isn’t the same,” Anderson said. “I greatly miss personal communication with my students.”
Professors also found frustrations in how overwhelming the situation was. It was difficult to transition to online learning, sitting from their homes, and having to teach students with their children or spouses in the next room.
“The cycle felt never ending,” said Whitmore, as she discusses the search for online resources that were adequate for her class.
GRCC professors are struggling not only on an educational level, but also on a personal level.
Much like their students, professors also have not been able to see their friends, family, or students since March. Students and professors are both struggling with the unknown It’s uncertain which order will come down from the state level next, and and some are trying to find solace in new hobbies. Professors are expressing their longing for going out to coffee shops, walking around the campus without any intentions, visiting family, and returning to normal.
“It is not pleasurable to wear a mask, and it is not fun missing out on social gatherings,” said Thomas Neils, a professor of physical sciences. “If we can’t follow the basic precautions seriously and with determination, more drastic prohibitions may be needed.”
Not only are professors thinking about their personal struggles, but they are also thinking about their students’ struggles. The biggest challenge for students that GRCC professors have noticed is keeping everything under control.
“I’m sure that students are being bombarded with emails and notices from their instructors, from their workplace, and from other organizations to which they belong,” said Neils. “I feel bad every time I send out an email correcting a mistake or making a change in the schedule because I know that some students will accidentally overlook the message.”
Other struggles that professors have noticed include a difficulty with adapting to a new learning style, sharing Wi-Fi and physical space, being social, time management, self direction, and uncertainties. Not only are professors worried about their own struggles with COVID-19, but they are worried about their students’ mental health, living conditions, and how this will affect them in years to come.
After reflecting on 2020 and all of the challenges that it brought, many professors have taken this as a learning experience. The difficulties and frustrations they’ve encountered, the struggles they saw their students experience, and the flexibility that they had to adapt allowed them to learn many valuable lessons that many will carry on into their future teaching careers.
The main characteristics that GRCC professors have learned throughout this experience include how to be flexible, understanding, and compassionate. Professors have also learned how to improve their communication and adaptability skills. Sikkema expresses one of the things that he has been reminded throughout this experience that all professors should take into consideration; “I teach students first and subject matter second.”
Not only have professors learned a lot about themselves throughout 2020, they have also learned a lot about their students. They are proud of the flexibility and tenacity that their students have displayed throughout this unexpected and challenging year.
“I’ve learned just how resilient and motivated our students are,” said Denis Sutton, professor of communication studies. “The online format requires motivation and persistence on their part, and I’ve been so impressed with how well they’ve done with this.”
After having to completely re-evaluate their teaching methods, many of these professors are going to re-think education and how they teach moving forward. Many are even completely changing their way of teaching and incorporate methods learned over virtual learning.
“I am thinking of trying out a flipped classroom teaching method once we are back face-to-face,” said Neils. “In that method, I will have the students watch the lecture video before they come to class, and then the class time will be spent doing demonstrations, discussing real-life applications, and applying the information from the lectures as we do group problem-solving.”
With COVID-19 opening his eyes to the tenacity of students and the flexibility that educators need to have, Neils finds this to be a better way to educate his students. Many professors will also continue to utilize the same online resources they have spent hours finding and sharing over Zoom, podcasts, discussion boards, and other resources.
Other Professors are not changing their teaching styles in tangible ways, but rather in their mental outlook on teaching. Sikkema said he will continue to be more flexible with late work and due dates, promote student self-direction, improve communication, and build in redundancies so students are set up for success. As well as realizing that success is different for every student. Sutton also says that he will be “more flexible and adjustable for whatever challenges come our way.”