Community college faculty have always been more than classroom teachers, but during the pandemic their roles as counselors, navigators and sources of needed referrals perhaps have never been more paramount — or appreciated.
Beyond the dizzying logistics and scrambled pedagogy involved in switching from in-person to online learning, faculty have needed to overcome their fears and frustrations, keep students engaged, celebrate what successes they can, avail themselves of professional development resources and support from their leadership, and look to the future.
John Tenuto, a professor of sociology at the College of Lake County (CLC) in Grayslake, Illinois, says that he and his wife, Maria Jose Tenuto, a fellow sociology instructor at CLC, have found teaching during a pandemic to be not only an intellectual but an emotional challenge.
“It’s always important for teachers to love their students. You have to show that you care and you want them to achieve their goal. You have to get that across on a computer. It’s very odd,” he says. “You’re teaching to a camera, and a lot of blank screens because we don’t require students to put their cameras on, for privacy. You’re teaching to black boxes with text names on them.”
That makes it difficult to tell whether students are following what professors are saying at any given moment, Tenuto says.
“There’s an energy in the classroom. When you tell a joke, when a student tells a joke, when you make a point that’s affecting to them, you don’t feel that [over Zoom],” he says. “It’s almost like having to adapt a little bit as if you were in a cone of silence on ‘Get Smart.’ You’re seeing them laugh, but you don’t hear them laugh. … You’re teaching in a vacuum.”
The Tenutos have tried to recreate the live environment of the classroom as much as possible by essentially transforming a room of their house into a classroom with a whiteboard, a computer monitor and a projector.
“As much as students are on social media, and they engage with technology and video games, most of them have gone through school in a very traditional way,” says Tenuto, who teaches about the sociology of pop culture. “They’re in classes, they’re raising their hands, they’re used to face-to-face interactions. It was all taken away from them in an afternoon. That was a very hard shift for them.”
To keep the classroom feel as much as possible, the Tenutos are using the camera to pan and zoom in and out so that they aren’t too dependent on Zoom itself.
“We’re not always sharing the screen on Zoom,” Tenuto says. “You could zoom in on the board when you need to, and then pan out and focus on our face. If you’re showing a prop, you can zoom in on the prop. It feels more like a classroom environment.”
Aside from the overall comfort level that provides students, it accounts for the fact that not every student has the fastest wi-fi package from Xfinity, Tenuto says.
“Some students are taking class on their phone,” he says. “We’ve had students who have had to take it in parking lots because they need the wi-fi from a business. We have some students who can’t show their camera because they don’t have the capability, or they’re sharing technology with their brothers and sisters and have to mute themselves.”
Tenuto considers it a major victory that faculty and students at CLC and elsewhere were able to pivot completely within one week into this entirely different world.“That’s been our biggest victory, to be able to continue learning — not in an ideal way, but in some way,” he says.