Returning to in-person education was harder than I expected

Classroom skills that previously came naturally to lecturers and students can become very rusty in the online environment, says Christopher Hallenbrook 

January 22, 2022
Masked students in a classroom illustrating an opinion article about returning to in-person teaching
Source: iStock

As the Omicron variant goes into retreat faster than many people initially expected, the prospect of having to return to teaching online is mercifully receding. I, for one, am relieved. I know how hard it would have been to go back to teaching from home – because I know how hard it was even to return to the familiarity of the physical lecture theatre after 18 months of absence.

I was excited to return last semester and grateful that my university took the appropriate steps to allow me and my students to do so. Yet, despite the new skills I had gained teaching in a virtual environment, the classroom skills I previously took for granted were rusty. When and how to admonish (or ignore) tardiness, for instance, or texting, or back-of-the-classroom chatter: all of these familiar challenges either didn’t present themselves at all or didn’t present in the same way in a virtual environment. Even learning names took longer than it used to, because for 18 months I had relied on Zoom to remind me which one went with which face (or avatar).

But the students’ in-person skills were rusty, too – so sometimes my uncertainty and occasional hesitation turned out to be the best course of (non)action. One of my courses seemed as if it was going to have a tardiness problem, but by the end of the second week that had resolved itself. Students didn’t want to miss anything; they just weren’t used to having to navigate traffic and walk from the parking lot to the classroom after 18 months clicking on a Zoom link at home.

Freshmen, in particular, had no road map for navigating in-person college instruction. Their last in-person classes were the beginning of their junior year of high school. One of my classes was a first-year seminar about whose topic I was enthusiastic, so I looked forward to the face-to-face discussions I had missed so dearly online. However, while my students showed flashes of enthusiasm for guest speakers and certain units, they were largely passive sponges, quiet as the woods on a snowy evening. Even when they were talkative in small groups, they were painfully silent when it came to reporting back to the class as a whole. And no one was willing to argue the opposite position and instigate a debate. Even the one or two initial exceptions lost steam over the course of the 15-week semester.

By the end, I was wondering where it had all gone wrong. But then those same students gushed about the course in the comments sections of my teaching evaluations. It turned out that the class hadn’t gone wrong at all; it was just that my dismay at their entrenched reticence had prevented me from adequately using the tools – minute papers on favourite topics, credit/no credit reflections, mid-semester evaluations – that could have allowed me to see the ways in which it was going right. 

Even on the days when I could see that my class was going right, it still didn’t feel normal. The masked faces looking back at me were ever-present reminders that all was not right with the wider world. Several of my students had taken my online classes in the prior two semesters and I didn’t recognise them right away because, of course, they hadn’t been masked on Zoom. “Oh, of course, John! I didn’t recognise you with the mask” was an all-too-common refrain that first week. Other times, watching a new student lower their mask to take a sip of water, I would realise how little I knew of what they looked like until that moment. And, of course, a high-energy, high-enthusiasm approach to class is less sustainable when breathing though a properly worn mask –although overall I found projecting my voice to the back of the room far easier than I’d expected.

While it wasn’t as unfamiliar when I first stood at the front of a college classroom years ago, rediscovering what had once been old was still a type of being new. The ups and downs, successes and mistakes were all learning experiences, which guided me as I prepared for the spring semester.

If this is your first semester back in the lecture theatre, I hope these reflections are useful. But I also have one piece of specific advice. If the experience of teaching in the pandemic has taught me anything, it is that we must be kind and patient – with each other but especially with ourselves.

Covid, Zoom and face masks may hopefully be on their way out, but that is one lesson of a tumultuous two years that we should hang on to.

Christopher R. Hallenbrook is assistant professor of political science at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

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