I’ve been part of the University of Florida’s orientation for new teaching assistants for a number of years. My topic has been advice for having a successful start to the school year.
Prior to this year, the 400 new teaching assistants would meet in a large auditorium for the orientation.
Due to Covid-19, this year’s orientation went online.
Over four days, part of the orientation was held live via Zoom, with about 100 different TAs attending each day.
The other portion of the orientation, which included my presentation, were recorded videos. (At the end of this post you can click on a link to watch the video.)
In creating my presentation, I considered what would be helpful advice for starting a school year in a pandemic.
Crises that affected teaching
I thought about teaching in times of crisis during my 28 years of teaching at UF, including these three unsettling times.
Serial killer in Gainesville
Over four days in August 1990, five students were brutally murdered in their apartments in Gainesville (the location of the University of Florida). Based on findings at the crime scenes, police reported that the same person committed all five murders. Students and faculty had difficulty focusing in class as we wondered when the serial killer would strike next – and how we could keep ourselves safe. The dean in my college gave cans of mace to all of us teaching night classes. Six months of high-alert anxiety passed until the police identified the murderer, Danny Rolling, who had been in custody in a nearby county on a burglary charge since September.
Category 5 hurricane hit south Florida
At the start of the school year in 1992, Hurricane Andrew hit Florida as a Category 5 hurricane. The hurricane killed 44 and caused a record $25 billion in damage. More than 1.4 million people lost power – some for more than a month. Gainesville suffered little damage, but the campus community was greatly affected. Many of our students were from south Florida where the hurricane made a direct hit, damaging and destroying homes and businesses and taking down phone lines and cell towers. Students missed class to stay near a phone as they waited to hear from their families and friends in the affected areas.
9/11 terrorist attacks
On Sept. 11, 2001, when the airliners crashed into the World Trade Center and then the Pentagon, a large crowd of students and faculty assembled in the college’s courtyard to view the display of television monitors. This was before we could check for news updates on mobile devices or had campus wifi adequate for everyone to check news online. Students didn’t attend classes so they could monitor news on television, radio, and online on their computers. For weeks and months following 9/11 and the deaths of almost 3,000 Americans, we all wondered when the next terrorist attack might happen and worried about the start of a world war. On campus, athletic facilities eliminated nearby parking and installed barricades based on concerns about bombers attacking locations with large gatherings, such as the Gator football game.
For most students, each of those events was their first experience with such a large-scale crisis. They were afraid. Sometimes they were angry that more wasn’t being done to help life return to normal.
Teaching during a crisis was a challenge, with students often distracted in class and some missing class.
Teaching during a crisis
Based on those crises and others I’ve experienced during my teaching career, here are a few thoughts on what I’ve learned about students and teaching in trying times.
Think of the big picture of the course
As you design your course and plan the course assignments, think about what the major goals of the course are. Focus on those. You want to include the kind of multi-step assignments needed to work toward a major project. But don’t require too many assignments, which can seem more like box-checking work to your students rather than in-depth learning. With fewer assignments, you can take more time in providing feedback.
Teach with purpose
During a time of crisis, students appreciate a course that can pull them out of their worries – even for a short amount of time. Interesting reading assignments and class activities and your engaging presentations will provide a welcome change from worrying about Covid-19 or other concerns. With so many aspects of their lives beyond their control, students will value being able to make academic progress toward their degree.
Yes, some of the students will take advantage of the Covid-19 crisis to avoid responsibilities as a student. But most students are going to be genuinely concerned about the health crisis. Some will be dealing with family health issues or financial problems due to the pandemic. Acknowledge that they have true concerns. Establish policies that address the reality of more absences and more late work than in pre-pandemic school years.
I appreciate UF’s Graduate School and the Center for Teaching Excellence for holding an orientation for teaching assistants to help TAs be better prepared to be effective teachers. The Center for Teaching Excellence also offers a UF TA Handbook and a series of online training workshops.
I’d invite you to watch my video for the new teaching assistants. I offer advice and also share teaching strategies from three of my former doctoral students who are now university faculty members.
In the video, I encouraged the teaching assistants not to expect perfection from their students or themselves. If you’re teaching this semester, I’d give that advice to you, too.