Back to School: A Report from the Field

Most falls, “back to school” is an overused slogan used to sell pencils and autumn-toned sweaters. This year, it describes my actual teaching situation: I am back to teaching in-person in a classroom for the first time in nearly two years.

Returning to nursing school? Keys to success - American Nurse Today
“Back to school” means back to in-person for Kelsey this year.

I cannot say that the transition back into a classroom was entirely smooth. A perfect storm of seasonal allergies, some acid reflux, a cold, and projecting my voice in front of A GROUP OF CO-PRESENT HUMANS resulted in me losing my voice. Like truly: no voice. Given that I’ve been speaking nearly continuously since I uttered my first word (“dog,” much to my mother’s chagrin), the no voice thing was a shock to my system.

Other than my voice-loss, however, in-person teaching went relatively well. Below, I detail some of my observations from the first few weeks back.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Before last week, I hadn’t been in a room with 70 people (the size of my largest class) since March 2020. I had anticipated that being around so many people might be a bit discombobulating. And, it was … for about three minutes.

Then, everything promptly felt very normal. This was representative of my experience overall the first two weeks. Yes, the students were adjusting to being back in a classroom, but, overall, they were keen to listen, ask questions, and engage. The lessons flowed, more or less, according to plan. Not one projector worked how it was supposed to.

Teaching 2021: the apex of hand sanitizer stations.

Indeed, other than the masks and the sheer volume of available hand sanitizer, I found that teaching in-person in 2021 felt very similar to teaching in person in 2019.

Some teaching strategies are more easily executed in-person

I appreciate the many digital tools available for various forms of group work and collaboration. I also know that online, hybrid, and blended teaching models have lots to offer and are here to stay. But I’m going to come out and say it: some things are easier and better in person.

Group discussions are significantly easier to prompt and manage. Small group activities, particularly those involving props, work better in-person. And class management — being able to assess how long students need to complete an activity; being able look out and see confused or bored faces; being able to notice a student’s raised hand mid-lecture — is, quite simply, much easier.

I will say, however, I miss zoom’s help with names. Having each student’s name permanently attached to their sternum (or wherever the bottom of their zoom frame lands) is really very helpful!

Students raising actual, rather than virtual, hands in class? What a thrill!

What you think about modes of delivery is strongly influenced by your own personal circumstances

Three years ago, if you’d asked a random professor, student, or administrator what they thought about hybrid, online, and blended teaching delivery options, you would probably have been met with a shrug or a blank stare.

Today, everyone has an opinion on modes of delivery. And I’m finding that most people’s opinions are based on their individual circumstances.

Students who work full time tend to prefer hybrid, online, and blended models. As do students and faculty with heavy care responsibilities or extended commutes to work. Folks who live near campus, have been isolated for much of the last eighteen-months, or identify as extroverts, on the other hand, tend to appreciate in-person classes.

Opinions on delivery models tend to stem from the deeply personal.

The fact that people prefer models that fit their own needs isn’t revelatory, of course.

But, I do think it’s noteworthy a lot of the arguments for and against different delivery models begin from the individual and extend to the collective rather than the other way around.

And, I’d be lying if I wasn’t a little worried about this trend. Of course, personal experience connects individuals to communities. But, also, what’s best my life isn’t a good gauge for assessing teaching and learning strategies more broadly. I’m hoping that as the Fall speeds along, the conversation might begin to change to focus on collectives and communities.

Systems are still very good at incorporating change into their frames

I teach three classes a week: one Tuesday, one Thursday, one Friday. I began to lose my voice after the Tuesday class. I was hoping that it would come back before Thursday, but it was not to be. So, Thursday morning, I made the decision to move my first class to zoom, where my students could turn up the volume on their devices and I wouldn’t be tempted to shout. This was, I thought, an upside to pandemic teaching: more flexibility and accommodation options, for both students and teachers.

Proving the perseverance of my optimism, I again hoped my voice would be better Friday morning. It was not. In fact, it was worse. I had to strain to speak, and even then, the sounds were thin and squeaky.

I debated whether to cancel the class. But, I hadn’t given the students much notice and cancelling when I could zoom felt like poor form. Also, I was once a fairly high level athlete who was told by many a coach to “tough it out” and play through illness and so I’m very bad at taking sick days. And, you know, I’m in a limited term appointment and am not super keen to draw attention to myself for cancelling last minute. So, I decided to hold the class on zoom.

My voice barely made it to the end. And, even though I drank my weight in honey-lemon tea and refrained from talking for the weekend, my voice was still hoarse the following Tuesday.

It's all about Sick Time.” - Cardinal Services
Sometimes, taking a day off is important.

The truth is: teaching on Friday made my voice worse, and I should have cancelled class.

This made me aware how easily systems adapt to integrate new tools and strategies into their logics. On the one hand, online teaching can create flexibility and accommodation for individuals. On the other hand, it can also discourage folks from taking days off because you can zoom-in from almost any circumstance, can’t you? But, not taking sick days serves the logic of the institution. Rest and healing are required for the health and wellness of students and teachers, as humans.

Despite the voice debacle, I’d say my first two weeks back in a classroom were good. And, they also helped me identify that I’d like to direct some of my activist teaching energy toward the systems that are shaping the “new normal in teaching” in, and after, the era of covid.

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