Reflections from community college: how the pandemic made me a better teacher

The pandemic upended Robyn McGee's plans for her Humanities 101 class. But her students, she found, were up for the challenge.

Courtesy of Robyn McGee
The pandemic upended Robyn McGee's plans for her Humanities 101 class. But despite the upheaval, she found her students eager to learn under these new conditions.

Herding cats was the image that came to my mind as I made the mad dash to virtually migrate my community college Intro to Humanities 101 class from face to face to distance learning. The coronavirus hit California with a vengeance and on March 19, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared all schools, including the community colleges, closed until further notice.

All the plans I had for the semester were now useless. Showing films like “Frida” and “A Lust for Life” was out of the question. While Zoom didn’t allow me to screen movies, I did make liberal use of Youtube clips. The class discussions, group assignments, and readings – and the field trip to the Grammy Museum which I had excitedly put on the syllabus just weeks earlier – had to be scrapped in favor of  lessons more conducive to online instruction and the nationwide lockdown reality.

As the changeover date grew closer, I  sent out dozens of “please confirm receipt” emails, texts, video messages, and electronic announcements explaining how we would use Zoom along with  Canvas, a learning management system, for the rest of the semester. I felt like a conductor on a speeding train, worried some students would be left behind as we careened toward an uncertain future. I started the semester on ground with 23 students.  By the time we had our first Zoom class, to my great relief, 20 students had arrived.

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There were some students I knew would be able to adapt to the virtual format fairly easily. They were the ones who spent lots of out of class time on Facebook, the Gram, Tik Tok, and Twitter. Others were flummoxed by the technology and resentful COVID-19 had upended their lives. But sometimes those who struggle, through extraordinary effort and taking their studies seriously, turn out to be superstars. Such was the case with Giselle.

Just as my students transitioned to distance learning, the same was true for me. I had never taught an online course and knew little about video conferencing. Though students could see my video feed, the body language cues I rely on in the classroom are nonexistent on Zoom, so I had to repeat instructions a few times to make sure everyone got it. Through trial and error, I  learned the quirks of Zoom. One time, I mistakenly scheduled the class meeting on my personal Zoom account, instead of the institutional one, so students received an error message, which led them to blow up my cell phone, trying to figure out what was going on. By the time I figured it out, class time was over and students were frustrated. Another time, I ended class early to give students a chance to review for a test.  Unfortunately, some students left the feed early and didn’t receive the directions. That led a couple of them to miss the test. One of those students was Giselle. The nongrade dropped GIselle beneath the A she had earned. Her academic counselor wrote me in a panic asking if there was anything Giselle could do. Unfortunately, there wasn’t,  as the rest of the class had taken the test and the answers had been automatically released for all to see.

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My class was a diverse group, reflective of the surrounding community, mostly African Americans and Latinx. Some of them were over 30, folks who had not been in a classroom in a long time. Lidia, a Latinx mother of three, told the class the reason she maintained straight A’s, is she “takes her studies seriously” because at 32, she had “no time to fool around.”  Other students are part of Gen Z, barely out of high school, still living with parents. I ended each class with “stay inside, if you do go outside, wear a mask, wash your hands often and stay away from crowds.”

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The first few weeks on Zoom, all the students wanted to talk about during discussions  was the coronavirus and how miserable they were having to stay inside. Trying to keep them on track with lessons on Renaissance painters, surrealism, and the Romantic writers was a real challenge.

“Are you scared, Professor?” asked Andrea, a young African American woman who had taken my Women’s Studies class the previous semester.

“Not at all,” I said.  “And you shouldn’t be either. Wear a mask, wash your hands constantly, stay away from crowds. We will all get over this.”

It occurred to me that my position as an educator now encompassed the role of consoler, news reporter, and college administration liaison.  Every class meeting, I congratulated the class on how brave and flexible they were and reminded them one day they could tell their children and grandkids how “they had lived through the great pandemic of 2020.”

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My one white student was a man in his early 60s, William*, a former longshoreman. William had returned to college to get an associate’s degree after years of working on the docks. William can best be described as a Trumper. He railed against the “fake” pandemic, and angrily cited “statistics” about how a woman was more likely to lose their children in a car accident than to a “so-called” virus.” He was especially incensed Governor Newsom had closed the beaches and “taken away our rights.”

When hundreds of thousands of protesters  around the world took to the streets demanding justice over the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer, William’s rants cooled but the other students were disgusted and fired up. I used the historic global demonstrations  to examine protest art and how artists from other eras used monumental changes in society to inform their art.  Reading student essays about racism and inequality, I was surprised to learn most of them had never had anyone outside of their own race in the homes for a meal.

“How will we ever get together if we can’t even break bread?”  I asked.

Ola, a man from Nigeria and one of my top students, asked William to come over to his house for a visit.  William described how he had eaten at his black relatives’ homes and accepted Ola’s invitation. I am not sure if the two ever got together because the shelter in place orders are still in place.

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The students were quite emotional on the last day on Zoom. Everyone had turned on their videos so I could see them together as a class one last time. I praised them for their hard work, despite the struggles and tumult. After she missed that test early on, Giselle was early to each class meeting and stayed for the duration. She ultimately earned an A, but I thought she might still be angry with me for not allowing her to re-take the exam.  Instead, I received this note from her.

Dear Professor,

I'd like to take my time and thank you for not dropping the class and helping us students during these tough times. I know it's not hard for us but also the professors because it was an unexpected transfer. Thank you once again for being with us.

Giselle S.

Sudden change is never easy for anyone.  But the way in which Spring 2020 played out for my Humanities class,  I do believe most of them realized the confidence and determination they didn’t know they had. For me, the pandemic chaos made me a better teacher.  It forced me to be more creative with my lessons, more patient with my students and more adaptable and ready for a future in academia still undefined.

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