‘Normal’ or ‘New normal’ —Reflections on getting back into in-person teaching

Written on a train on a phone – so forgive any typos. I’ll tidy up later!

Since 18th March last year (2020), all of my teaching has been online. Obviously, this was the right thing to do. Society closed. We didn’t really know much about the novel coronavirus first identified in 2019, we didn’t know much about transmission and vaccines were still a dream. The situation also developed rapidly. The government told us not to be worried about the virus, that it was of little concern. Two weeks later, we were in lockdown. For everyone in higher education, this led to a monumental pivot online. Like every university, Hull responded and followed governmental guidelines.

When the lockdown hit, I felt lucky to be based in the Skills Team at the University of Hull. As a team, we all had experience of teaching online. We also had the software, the tools and training to deliver a good online experience. Nothing needed to be procured. No training was needed. We just picked up and got on with things. I’m not saying that the switch to online teaching wasn’t challenging — but we had somewhat of a head start.

As the pandemic evolved over summer 2020 and cases plummeted, we were able to open our library — the Brynmor Jones. This was done with an abundance of caution, following all safety guidance and with a lot of risk assessing. We were one of the first HE libraries to re-open, recognising not all of our students had access to the technology or connection they required to be successful at home. The library formed an important part of social and cultural capital for some students — helping provide what they may not readily have. While open, as a library we also focused on safety, still delivering our support digitally. This meant that our service points were not staffed in the same way and we focused on self-help, live chat and query management. The library was primarily open for socially-distanced study.

While the library was open, teaching and appointments we’re still off the agenda. At the point of initial opening, we still kept these online. This doesn’t mean I’ve been working from home all this time. As soon as the Library re-opened last year, I was in the occasional day, usually once a week. I figured that if our frontline staff were in – I should show face too. I eased myself in. By January 2021, I committed to three days a week.

For most of the year, while I was on campus, my students weren’t. All classes will still online. In May 2021, we were able to offer face-to-face appointments again. It was strange (but lovely!) to see students again. I felt connected to my work again. It reminded me why I love my job — I’d missed that interaction more than I realised. While appointments slowly ticked over, class-based teaching, workshops and lectures face-to-face were still some time away. At this point, it meant that while none of us stopped teaching, many lecturers hadn’t ‘lectured’ or taught on campus for over a year. That’s a long time!

My timeline now lands on last week. The 6th September. My first on-campus teaching for over a year and a half.

I was a bit nervous. Not going to lie.

Was teaching in a room like ‘riding a bike?’. That is to say — can I easily pick it up again despite all this time away? As I walked over to the Cohen building, the nerves melted away to make rookie excitement. I was so excited I took a selfie to make the occasion – but decided to do this outside the building so the students didn’t think I was odd before I even started teaching them.

Yup! Me stood outside Cohen.

A quick photo later, I found myself stood in a room much larger than needed to facilitate some social distancing, I looked over a sea of faces (well… 25 faces), and I began to teach.

Thankfully. It was like riding a bike. I just fell back into that comfortable space at the front.

It struck me how odd it was being able to move and use body language again. It was surreal! I didn’t realise how limiting a webcam could be until I was freed from those constraints. I could gesture. I could easily point to my slide visuals. I wasn’t trapped behind a screen. Teaching in-person went beyond this freedom. It was easier — and I hope — better!

I was in the middle of explaining a model of criticality, and my students looked puzzled. I’d not explained it effectively. I’d lost some of the room. Immediately — I was able to change track and reframe my explanation. I could see the metaphorical lightbulbs switch on. They’d understood what I said. I’d explained better. I have missed that more than anything with online teaching. The tendency for students to not turn on webcams removes this valuable tool from educators. We can’t see how our students are doing. This, more than anything, I had missed.

It isn’t just about understanding or not. There are other visual queues to respond too. There were some clear points at which I could see students were a bit overwhelmed, worried or even frightened of the expectations ahead. However, in seeing this, I was also able to reassure them that we would support them to get there. They have a wall to climb, but we’ll help them build a ladder.

My final reflection focuses on energy. I’m well used to being on campus with my regular three days now part of my schedule. I had previously found it a tiring transition when I first adjusted from vegetating at home to being in the office. But I was past that. At least the main hit. Teaching, however, did exhaust me more than I expected. It takes a lot of physical energy. Standing, gesturing, thinking, watching, projecting my voice — as much as I loved my first session, I was sure tired after!!!

My advice to anyone easing back into campus is to be prepared. Getting out of the home for working is tiring. It’s an even bigger hit when you throw in some lectures.

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