I started my teaching career in the pandemic, specifically in Fall 2020. As a result, my “new normal” is actually just normal, because my knowledge of teaching has mainly come from stumbling my way through the difficulties of teaching during COVID times. Repeatedly, I have joked with my students that they never thought they would want to be in a regular classroom so much, and every time I get the same sheepish smile and resounding “yes!”
From my experiences this past year, I’ve taken away two major lessons:
1. Our students deserve our respect and to be heard.
I made a conscious choice to trust my students this year. Our students are whole people when they walk into our classrooms (or sign into Zoom), and we need to remember that. Life still happens to our students whether they are in college or not. This choice was also a relief to me; I didn’t have to decide whether their excuse was “good enough” for me to make an exception. Listening to and trusting my students freed me from making these choices to focus on getting them whatever help they needed. This is not a new conversation (see O’Neill and Fife and Schafer), but certainly the pandemic has brought this more to light.
As part of my decision to trust my students, here is how I’m going to continue to implement two of my classroom policies:
- Attendance: We talk about why attendance in my class is important, but if students choose to prioritize something else over my class, this is their business. I always tell them that I appreciate them letting me know when they will miss class, but they don’t need to give me details.
- Extensions: I am extremely flexible with giving extensions on major and minor assignments. Like with attendance, students don’t need to provide an excuse. They only need to ask. For things like peer review or exams, I may not be able to say yes, but we will have a conversation in the beginning of the semester for why that is the case.
2. Collaborative activities and discussion are essential to building community.
The isolation brought on by the pandemic left many of my students feeling alone in their questions and thoughts; we struggled to build community, and more than one of my students expressed longing for more group discussion and connection with me and each other. We also know that building community is a vital part of successful composition classes (see Dean and Warren and Bruffee). Social distancing and masks made this much more difficult; however, we were able to combine digital (sharing documents online, Zoom chat, etc.) and traditional (i.e. small groups) collaborative activities to create this sense of community that my students craved.
At first, it was awkward; however, collaborative activities and discussion helped them be more confident with sharing their ideas. For my future classes, we’ll be doing much more collaboration through digital and traditional means, and I hope to strengthen the classroom community that my students thrive on.