Campus Culture

Returning to In-Person Teaching: We’re All in This Together

This semester, many of us will be returning to teaching in person for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. We’re excited to see our students and colleagues in person, and at the same time nervous and unsure of what to expect.

For this blog post, we asked BMCC colleagues who have already been teaching in person to share their experiences, focusing on three questions:

  • What was surprising to you? What do you wish someone had told you before you returned?
  • What’s gone well? Where have moments of joy arisen?
  • What challenges have you had and how did you resolve them? 

Below is a lightly edited version of their advice, which we collected anonymously. Many thanks to all who contributed!

Be kind to yourself, your students, and BMCC staff.

Design your course/learning experiences as self care and care for your students.

Be kind to and thank staff who have been in the building this whole time or returned much earlier than others (B&G, public safety, library, etc.).

Be available to the students (both in-person and electronically).

Forgive yourself and them, more readily. When something goes wrong, it’s probably not you and it’s probably not them.

Patience isn’t just a virtue, it’s also a survival mechanism. These students have had their education disrupted in unprecedented ways. They are a little less ready for primetime than they usually are.

Be flexible. Offer students choices.

Many students in my class needed time getting up to speed with Blackboard, and everything that we did in class was on Blackboard. I told them that I was not taking attendance–what mattered was their learning. I posted an update of each day’s class for students who couldn’t attend. This helped us all stay organized and on track. They had the choice to submit their work in person, by email or on Bb. Students seemed to respect the flexibility they were offered.

One of my courses had 18 students registered, but at any given week, there were about 5-6 students in the class, if that. Many of them reported having family issues, sickness of themselves and their families, including COVID, and some just didn’t show up. I made everything available on Blackboard from the beginning, and let students know that attendance wasn’t mandatory. I told them not to come in if they were feeling sick at all. I’m hoping that kept people safer.

I was teaching a hybrid class, so we already had a Zoom account set up. That was lucky. The biggest challenge was students being able to get to campus, to get on campus, and to stay healthy. Most weeks, only about 50% of the students were there in person, for a variety of reasons. One student who had just given birth the week before class was afraid to take the subway and possibly expose herself and her newborn to COVID. So, we set it up so that she could Zoom into the class.

I recorded class sessions and made all my materials available on Blackboard to support students who had to be out sick for a couple of weeks.

Create a welcoming environment.

I brought a welcome back banner and balloons the first day of class. We went over the syllabus and talked about ourselves.

Thematize the return to the classroom. Discuss why you’re glad to be back. Congratulate them on making the choice to be there. Get them talking about why they’re glad to be back. It’ll make you feel good and it sets a good vibe and tone for the semester.

Take advantage of the “in-personness” of the class (even if you feel a little rusty). Don’t forget to move!

Be prepared for it to take a few classes to get your in-person teaching “swagger” back.

I walked into class and just looked at everyone. After teaching asynchronously for three semesters, I forgot that I needed to lead introductions and get everyone talking!

For the first time, I made a conscious effort to respond to the “in-personness” of the class and not just take it for granted. I tried to plan one or more activities in each class that would only work in-person, like charades, or that would work best in-person, like Q&As in small groups. I walked around the classroom a lot—after sitting in place for several semesters on Zoom I was glad I could do that again. If students were okay with writing on the chalkboard, I invited them to do so (for example, “What ideas did your group come up with?”) so that they too could move around, as opposed to only sitting.

I usually walk around the classroom while I teach. I forgot how wonderful it is not to be tethered to a computer screen. It felt so good to move around. I also like to get my students up and moving, so I think it was nice for them, too.

Being able to hold a physical paper and grade with a pen brought me happiness!

Provide opportunities for students to interact with each other, but gauge their comfort level with physical proximity.

My students were so helpful to each other. It was a hybrid class, so they didn’t meet in person until Week 3. It was a joy to watch them interact in person and to be able to interact in person with them. The class developed a strong sense of community that was evident both in person and on Zoom. One of my students said to me, “Professor, we are all in this together.” That pretty much summed it up!

We do a lot of small group work in my class. It was surprising to see how well that worked out, even though everyone was masked and socially distanced. Students worked in groups of four around the tables.

Gauge the comfort level of the students when it comes to working (literally) closely with one another. Use an online poll early on in the semester. Peer review online or in class? Group work or more discussion boards? Online office hours or in person? (Take into account your own feelings, too, naturally.)

Help students connect to support resources

I reached out to students one-on-one while in the classroom. I used Connect2Success and also Conexiones (which focuses on Latino students). This approach was helpful and we were able to assist by helping a few students refocus.

I encouraged students to make use of resources like counseling and tutoring. Using those resources helped students stay in the class.

My students and I got support from Library faculty and staff.

Keep what’s working

If you hated online teaching (Hi, I did!), don’t scuttle everything you learned just out of spite. It’s likely that you created modules and videos and tools that are going to stand you in good stead when you’re back in the classroom, too.

Masks, masks, masks

It’s hard to talk wearing a mask, especially if the classes are long. After the day where I taught 2 classes, I was often exhausted.

Wearing the masks makes it harder for everyone to hear each other, especially since we were all socially distancing in the classroom. But we adjusted surprisingly quickly. The air filters in the classroom do make some noise as well.

It was one of the friendliest, most interactive classes I have been part of in my time at BMCC–even though we were masked and socially distant.

When a student walks in and you smile at them, they don’t see the smile: they just see you staring at them. Use your words!

You will realize how much you rely on seeing mouths to get a sense of how things are going. Smiles go unseen, laughs are muffled. It can be hard to tell who is speaking. Don’t get discouraged. Read eyes. Work on your smize.

If you wear glasses, make sure you can speak without them fogging up before class. (This makes the reading of eyes so much easier.)

It’s hard to talk through a mask. I found that my throat would get sore and I needed to take sips of water. However, taking off the mask to sip water negates a lot of the benefits, so maybe having some hard candy or gum might help.

I bought a wireless microphone and headset so that students could more easily hear me through the mask.

Have a strategy ready for dealing with those with masks pulled down. Nip it in the bud early. Use a light touch, e.g., “It’s great seeing your face, but I’m seeing too much of it right now!”

There may be unanticipated snafus gaining access to the building

You need to get back into practice with what to bring with you when teaching in person. I was so out of practice with in-person teaching that the first day I forgot to bring my office keys with me.

While Public Safety attempted to do the best they could, they were given the responsibility to keep us safe, maintain order in the long lines, answer questions, open classrooms, open the turnstiles, etc. Also, often the information varied from building to building.

One week near the beginning of the semester, when the new CUNY vaccine verification system had just been set up, three students couldn’t get on campus even though they were vaccinated, because they hadn’t properly uploaded the information. So, they went to the nearby Starbucks and Zoomed into class. I used my laptop and two of my students who were in person partnered with the students on Zoom to make sure they could see and hear everything and that they could ask questions and take part in the class discussions. It was really amazing and a joyous moment (as well as a challenge).

And once you’re in, you may notice some changes…

The mice have been busy, but B&G is fabulous when notified about needed cleaning.

I teach on Sunday, so it’s always quiet on campus. But I was still shocked by how quiet it was. It was eerily quiet. Deserted. Hopefully, with 70% of classes in person, that won’t be the case this spring. It’s weird not to see any other people around when you walk in the corridors.

Take time to enjoy seeing your students and colleagues!

The moment of joy was in seeing some of my students and being able to actually engage with them.

I had been using Zoom to talk to some students about career options. It was so nice to finally meet them face to face!

The classes where students were excited to be there were great. We had great discussions. I teach health education and public health, so we always had something to talk about. It felt nice to come back to my office and even have an occasional knock on the door and see a friendly face.


Do you have an experience or advice you’d like to share? Leave it in the comments below.


One Response to Returning to In-Person Teaching: We’re All in This Together

  1. Boyda Johnstone February 1, 2022 at 11:29 am #

    I adore this post! Thanks so much to everyone who contributed! The “space between the logs” advice is so good – we should be incorporating pauses and moments of quiet into the classroom space itself, rather than constantly filling it with more and more, which will help the students themselves with some self-reflection. The students need time to adjust to each other and being in [masked] community together, so it’s understandable that the first few classes are going to feel a little awkward. Still, my first day yesterday was full of eager, bright faces and voices, and it feels good to have halls full of students again. I also like the advice to get students talking about why they’re thankful to be back on campus. We should be boosting events and on-campus resources as much as possible to continue to foster supportive in-person communities.

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