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An Education Experiment: Teaching, Learning, and Mental Health Amidst COVID-19

An Education Experiment: Teaching, Learning, and Mental Health Amidst COVID-19

In this blog post, I reflect on my unique experiences as both an undergraduate studying English and psychology at SUNY Cortland and teaching assistant attempting a semester of online learning due to the coronavirus pandemic. My goal is to help normalize the chaos we are all experiencing as students and teachers by sharing my personal narrative. In addition, I provide recommendations on how I’ve stayed positive throughout this semester and I offer useful advice for educators and students involved in online education during these apocalyptic times.

The Fall 2021 semester is quickly coming to an end, however, my reflection on the semester is only beginning. This semester, I took on 18 online credits, the role of being a teaching assistant, 2 jobs: serving at a Japanese steakhouse and babysitting four kids, and a psychology internship. On top of all these responsibilities, I recently moved into my first apartment with my boyfriend and our three lovely, crazy cats. This has definitely been an adjustment process for the both of us. Balancing my new home life, online school, my jobs, taking care of my cats, teaching, and transcribing for my psychology internship have all definitely taken a toll on my mental and physical health. 

Not to mention, we are living in a pandemic which means our stressors now are not the same stressors we had prior to Covid-19. 

At a micro level, I have been overwhelmed and stressed with all of these changes and new responsibilities in my own life. At times, I have felt alone and isolated from the rest of the world as I complete my college experience within the small walls of my apartment. However, nearly all of us have been forced to quarantine, social distance, and do remote school. Although these actions are necessary to help stop the spread of Covid-19, when people feel isolated and lonely, it “can increase stress and anxiety” (Mental Health and Coping During COVID-19). At a macro level, I have been scared and anxious for our country, for the African American community, for those working in healthcare, for police officers, for our education system, and overall, for the uncertainty of our future. I have asked myself constantly throughout this semester: What will come next? 

I have had many mental breakdowns and anxious moments throughout this semester due to my education. I was often overwhelmed by the work I was being assigned while trying to teach myself the lesson from that day. Although my experience this semester has felt to be the exception — research suggests that what I am going through is quite common. According to an August survey finding released by the American Psychological Association, “most adults report experiencing elevated stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic, adults ages 18 to 23 are experiencing the highest stress levels” and “90% of this age group reported education as a significant source of stress” (Stress in College Students: What to Know | Best Colleges | US News). Personally, I learn better being taught in an in-person classroom rather than being forced to teach myself online. In two massive studies conducted by the Educause Center for Analysis and Research, researchers found that 70% of students and 73% of professors preferred in-person classes. (Most Students and Faculty Prefer Face-To-Face Instruction, EDUCAUSE Surveys Find | EdSurge News). 

Online learning has been around for some time now, however, online learning during a pandemic is something unlike any professor or student or school has experienced. The ways we taught and learned prior to Covid-19 are not the same ways we are teaching and learning now. We went from classrooms with our own desks right next to each other to online classrooms where our desks became boxes of our face on a screen. As Tenzin Shayka, a journalist from Columbia University, and others write, this “pandemic has forced teachers, students and parents into an education experiment -- one in which they must navigate fluctuating schedules, new methods of keeping students engaged and confronting challenges of the technological haves versus have-nots” (For teachers and students, remote learning during COVID-19 poses challenges, stokes creativity - ABC News). In this transformation, we struggled to transfer those personal connections through our digital classrooms. One of my favorite aspects of my smaller, in-person English classrooms at Cortland was being able to arrive to class a couple minutes earlier to talk with my professor. Now, it is a little weird trying to chit-chat about random things with the professor in front of my virtual classmates while my internet struggles to keep connection. 

Being a completely online student has been challenging, stressful, and exhausting, however being a teaching assistant for an asynchronous online class to a group of 25 Freshman was definitely more challenging. I never taught any classes previously and the course I was helping teach is designed to be a type of first-year seminar. Goals of this class include understanding the transition to college, learning about SUNY Cortland policies and campus resources, and developing skills to help in academic success. Since my class was an asynchronous course and my first-year students rarely reached out to me, I felt disconnected from them. I would try to reach out via email but they rarely ever responded. They would, however, reach out to me in moments when they needed help with a specific task. From a teacher's perspective, I understood how important it is to stay in contact with our students, however, I am also a student who has first-hand experience with inundated inboxes – it is overwhelming. As a teacher, I wanted to create those personal, genuine connections with my students which is why I tried to keep reaching out. When they weren’t responding, I felt as if I was failing at being a good teaching assistant. However, as a student, I barely had time to make personal connections with my professors and classmates online. All I wanted was to pass my online classes and be done with the semester. I am sure my students were experiencing similar emotions. 

Being a student and a teacher through the coronavirus pandemic, I found that it was crucial to stay positive in order to continue through these tough, unpredictable times. Here are some ways I stayed positive during my semester: 

  • Limiting my social media intake. I ended up deleting my Instagram and Facebook account during this pandemic because it was negatively impacting my mental health.
  • Reminding myself that I am not alone. We are all experiencing similar difficulties and stress.
  • Focusing on one day at a time and one task at a time. I found that only focusing on things occurring to me in my present helped lessen my anxiety and/or stress.
  • Doing activities that make me happy such as watching the New Girl series or going on a walk during sunrise/sunset.
  • Being grateful for what I have and what I have been able to do during this pandemic.

As our pandemic continues to impact our next semester, I have a few pieces of advice for teachers:

  1. As Farah Jasmine Griffin writes in her article, Teaching African American Literature During COVID-19 | Boston Review, we must use this opportunity to “slow things down for [students]”. Rather than assigning a lengthy, closed book exam consisting only of written responses maybe consider a shorter exam consisting of a mixture of multiple choice, fill in the blanks, and short answer. Also, consider changing the closed book aspect of the exam to an open book. Another specific example of what slowing things down for students might look like is rather than assigning a whole novel, maybe assign students a short essay, poem, or article to read and closely analyze. As students, we have become programmed to rush through all of our thousands of assignments. During this, we are more worried about completing assignments/ passing exams rather than actually allowing learning to digest in our minds. Slowing down the education process will allow us to process what is happening both within the world and within our individual classes and lives. Further, slowing things down for students can allow for better learning, creativity, imagination, and a chance for students to actively imagine a better future. 

  2. Be able to adjust syllabus at any time along with due dates. A rigid, structured syllabus allows students to maintain a routine and a consistent schedule. However, being flexible during these times with syllabus and due dates is crucial because everyone’s schedules are constantly being shifted by outside influences due to our pandemic. It is important to keep a structure during these times but it is also important that teachers are not penalizing students for not completing certain assignments by specific due dates. Teachers should allow students to have extensions on due dates and communicate with students – if an assignment is becoming too overwhelming, maybe it needs to be shortened. We need to do what is in the best interest for both the student and the educator during these times which is being adaptable and flexible. 

  3. Be kind and understanding. If the course material, workload, etc. feels overwhelming for you as a teacher it probably is the same for the students. We are all human first. We are not superhuman. We require rest, breaks, and plenty of self-care especially, with the year we have lived in.

  4. Create community guidelines (Community Guidelines: Fostering Inclusive Discussions of Difference). One of my most enjoyable online classes this semester was a graduate level English course focused on reading for race, gender, and sexuality taught by Danica Savonick, an assistant English professor at SUNY Cortland. In the first couple meetings of our online class, we collaborated as a class to create a community guideline which acted as the fundamentals to create our classroom community. One of my favorite guidelines on this list was: We will be aware of the norms and limitations of working in our digital class space (i.e., chat norms, background noise, other people in the space, etc).

    1. We will make an effort to be present in the classroom.

    2. We welcome camera usage, but will not require it. 

    3. We will be flexible regarding unforeseen circumstances. 

I think it is important that teachers and students collaborate together to create guidelines for our online classrooms that best fit their requirements. Further, creating this guideline in the early weeks of an online class will allow for students and the teacher to create their ideal, most enjoyable online classroom. 

Lastly, I want to end with a quote from Ardundhati Roy’s piece, ‘The pandemic is a portal’. Roy writes “We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it”. Now, more than ever, we need to show kindness to each other. We need to imagine an online classroom that we genuinely enjoy and look forward to attending; we must fight for that online classroom. We need to work together as we continue through the trials and errors in this education experiment. 




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