Institute of Natural Sciences of the HS Ruhr West, Germany
When I went to my office to pick up my monitor and docking station on the 17th of March, 2020, I had a complete break-down. Walking amongst the empty buildings and outdoor spaces to the parking lot with my huge backpack full of ALL my teaching stuff I would need for the semester, I was in shock: I realized I would not SEE my students for the rest of the year. I would not be able to hug them, share their successes, and support them when they struggle.
I realized that the COVID-19 pandemic would severely impact me as a Science lecturer at a small German University. Looking back, I now see that getting to where I am at present can be described well by the Kübler-Ross change curve. In the late 1960s, inspired by her work with terminally ill patients, Kübler-Ross (1969) postulated that individuals who experience grief through loss go through five emotional stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Kübler-Ross (2014) noted later in her life that these stages do not have to happen in order and stated that not all individuals experience each stage. That said, these stages are a helpful way to help individuals better understand that others share these stages when they experience grief and that there is eventually an end to the sorrow.
Recently, the Kübler-Ross stages of grief have been used as a foundation to form the Kübler-Ross Change Curve (https://www.cleverism.com/understanding-kubler-ross-change-curve/). The change curve includes seven stages individuals often go through when faced with a significant change in their life, as in the graph below.
After feeling shocked and in denial, I had some awful days. I was frustrated and depressed by the reality of being out of touch with my colleagues and my students. But with time, something started to happen. I became inspired by wonderful teachers from all over the world who shared their thoughts and ideas on social media. That lead to experimentation. I came up with my version of the viral syllabus by Brandon L. Bayne. This tool gave me an early frame of reference that I still come back to daily. I use it to get into the right mindset each morning to make sure I prioritize the right things, stay humane, and understanding even though I might be frustrated or depressed myself. It reminds me of my purpose and responsibility as a teacher in this unusual situation BEFORE I get in touch with my students.
Most importantly, none of us have chosen to be in this situation. Let's not take it out on our colleagues, our leaders, our administrators, or our students. I decided that I, and we, need to make sure to connect and support each other – as human beings. Planning my semester, I also decided to integrate what I learned from emergency remote teaching and combined it with what I had known about onsite teaching. I wanted to prioritize sensible solutions over "that's what I always do," trust over academic rigor, flexibility, and understanding over following the rules. It was clear from the get-go that I could not teach the same course online that I taught f2f for two years now.
As I prepared to teach the next semester online once again, I reduced the learning outcomes for the whole course and the weekly sessions. I also decided that all teaching would be done asynchronously due to my students' access problems. I started a WhatsApp group for immediate questions – a complete first to share my private phone number with students. I also changed my language and became very informal, using first names and the German "du" instead of the more formal "Sie" in combination with the last names I usually use.
Before the semester started, I was prepared to set up another emergency online semester. I am not an expert on online learning, and I have deliberately decided that I would not try to become one right now. Based on my decisions, I learned how to screencast videos using Powerpoint and my iPad. I learned how to edit these videos and upload them to Youtube to reduce the amount of data uploaded to our Moodle LMS. I found a solution for my slow WiFi, so the video upload would not take up hours each week by asking my students whether they knew of a cheap and flexible phone contract – of course, they did!
A week before our semester was to start, I had the first two weeks of videos and material prepared, so I took a week off and tried to calm myself down by working in the garden and spending time with my husband. About three weeks into the Fall semester, I moved into the phases to experiment, decide, and integrate. I am at home doing what I love doing! Following are a few things I learned about myself as the emergency remote semester continued.
Building an online community
Building trust, listening with care, and responding with understanding are the most important things. I used informal language, and I acknowledged that we have a life outside of teaching and learning. On the first day of the semester, I integrated what I knew about community and the remote situation we faced. I asked my students to introduce themselves with three # on WhatsApp. So much positivity came from this small activity. We have fitness lovers, foodies, musicians, artists, dog walkers, frequent travelers, mechanics, and all kinds of other people in our course! I also acknowledged Ramadan's start and asked students to share what this time normally means to them and what it means now.
Importance of communication
Communication takes a lot of time, but it is the extra mile to feel strongly connected and build a community. I included tons of ways to receive feedback from my students – both anonymously and during personal contact (WhatsApp group and 1:1 chats during video office hours).
The Role of Leadership
As a teacher, I needed to make many decisions in a very uncertain time. I communicated that "we will make it! We will get through this together!" Reassuring students is particularly important for those who are vulnerable and dependent on me as a teacher. I made the most challenging decision thinkable for a "traditional" STEM teacher. For my Physics and Chemistry 101 course for engineering students (~150 students), I canceled the final exam and introduced weekly portfolios' as alternative assessments. These contain a reflection part that I hope will help students keep a diary of these strange times and reflect on their feelings and experiences. The answers also help me understand how my students were handling the pandemic. In the first week, I asked what their learning situation was. These reflections accounted for 10% of their grade and signaled the importance of their mental state. If I were braver to break with traditions, I probably would have ramped this 10% up to 30% – but I wasn't. Further, 30% is accounted for by a weekly Chemistry question and 60% by a Physics problem.
The first stages of dealing with the COVID-19 crisis were not easy, but later stages led to amazing outcomes. I understand everybody has gone, and is going, through the experience of teaching and learning during this pandemic differently, and I expect that some of my students are still in the thick of it. Others might not experience these feelings at all. That is why compassion is what guides me. We don't know what their lives are like right now. Let's be kind to each other and ourselves. I am proud of the strong sense of community and connectedness I feel with my students during this unusual semester. I am also proud of trusting in myself – even though I am still quite new to teaching – to disrupt the way I taught the past semester and do things VERY differently from the traditional way of teaching at my institute.
1. With respect to the Kübler-Ross Change Curve, what stages have you experienced?
2. What do you think you will be able to do better after COVID-19 restrictions as compared to the way you taught pre-COVID?
3. How might you help a faculty member to move from the stage of “depression” to the stage of “experimentation?” If you have made this move, explain what you did that would be considered experimentation.