For most of us in North America, March 2020 marks the first COVID-19 lockdowns and subsequent life-altering decisions and consequences. In education, we shifted to online teaching and learning almost instantaneously, and we extended ourselves to do what we do best: teach and inspire. We attended dozens of training workshops, learned entire suites of new platforms and programs, reviewed our professional priorities, embraced and applied pedagogical practices of care and love towards our students and their learning, and built and fostered online communities of practice – often in the midst of our own individual and family struggles, and at the expense of our own mental health and wellbeing.
Here we are now, two years later, back to onsite, in-person classrooms after the latest Omicron lockdown for most Canadian universities. Those onsite spaces and conditions are now inflected by the trauma of the pandemic, and we, as individual educators, are managing a range of different responses about this return. As coauthors of this piece, the three of us represent different classroom approaches, different career trajectories, and different familial circumstances — all of which have a significant impact on what we’re feeling and expecting in this transitional time. Yet we, like many of you, are united in our desire to share a community of care and support, and to take this space to reflect on what we’ve lost in our pandemic teaching, and what we can reaffirm and recommit to when we head back into the classrooms.
Moving forward from loss and grief
The pandemic has brought us to confront loss of all kinds – individual and communal, material and existential. We are also grieving pedagogical deprivations and sacrifices all along the teaching/learning spectrum: from students suffering “learning loss” due to failures in equity and access during (and also before) the pandemic, to instructors mourning the moves and methods of their embodied classroom teaching.
We believe it is critical to acknowledge and explore this grief (as eloquently expressed by Beth McMurtrie); we want to make a space for what we have lost as individual teachers and learners, and not pretend or presume that any of us can or should grieve similarly nor should we move on to “normal” life without pausing to reflect back.
Paradoxically, making space to explore our losses may help us go forward with a stronger sense of hopefulness about what post-pandemic pedagogy can and should be. We would like to imagine a kind of “positive mourning” that motivates us to recapture or protect the elements that are essential to our teaching but were made vulnerable by the pandemic, and that also encourages us to let go of practices or beliefs that we now recognize our classes don’t need or don’t actually profit from (much like the jettisoning of “dead ideas” proposed by Diane L. Pike).
In thinking about the transitions we’re navigating in our own teaching, we want to ask ourselves, both as individuals and as teaching communities: what was something that we never adjusted to, or never found a satisfactory digital work-around for, and how can we make an effort to centre that component in our teaching going forward? Conversely, what pieces of our pre-pandemic teaching life did we lose, only to find that our abilities were strengthened or renewed once those pieces were pruned away? What did we encounter in the online classroom that had been absent in our previous teaching life? Where can we identify the losses we never knew to mourn, spaces of possibility opened when we moved our teaching life online in such a complete and dramatic fashion?
Trauma-informed pedagogy and faculty mental health
Working to answer these questions may signal the beginning of the healing, transitional process. We use the words “healing”, “transitional”, and “process” deliberately, since we believe that the last two years were nothing short of a trauma, and that the weeks and months ahead will be and should be considered a critical post-traumatic stage. Moving forward requires personal reflection on what we have lost and what we will lose once back onsite, but we also need to carve time and place in our classrooms, in our collegial spaces, and in our personal relationships to mourn communally. We will also need support – internal and external – to be able to forgive ourselves for the mistakes we will make upon our return.
These acknowledgements will also help us implement trauma-informed pedagogical practices that open the doors of care and love to our students, but also to ourselves and each other.
In this context, we read the silence and the erasure of faculty mental health narratives in most institutional statements about pandemic teaching and the post-pandemic return as a reflection of a deeply rooted stigma around faculty mental health. We also see this erasure as an extension of the damaging “superhero” narrative associated with educators more broadly, and of critical importance especially among female, BIPOC, and precarious groups. In this context, we contend that addressing faculty mental health (anxiety, depression, fatigue, burnout and more clinical diagnoses) in the context of COVID and post-COVID should be an urgent departmental, institutional, and professional priority, comparable to the focus on student mental health and practitioner mental health in the context of “helping professions” (such as social work, counseling, public health, and psychology).
Hopeful for real change
Competing with our concerns about the toll on our mental health, one thing we are hopeful about is that as a result of the pandemic (and our growing awareness of ongoing and unpredictable global threats like climate change), our pedagogy will have to become more flexible and dynamic.
Rather than relying on a presumably immutable status quo (burdened with the weight of our education system’s roots in industrialized, capitalist, and colonial structures), we can fully embrace a responsive, evolving pedagogy that serves the needs of our students, our communities, and our immediate realities. Instead of invoking the mechanistic and abrupt process of “pivoting” our teaching, we can focus on course design and execution that are organic and intentionally imbued with elements of change and adaptation.
- When you reflect on your time teaching during the pandemic, what strikes you as powerful and transferrable to face-to-face teaching and learning? What strikes you as fundamentally “absent” or “lost” in the remote learning environment?
- What pedagogical tools or supports could you imagine that could serve to prevent such losses in the future?
- If you are back to in-person teaching, what have you gained in reconnecting with your students and colleagues, and how can you continue to affirm and foster these communities of pedagogy and care?
What might it look like, for instance, to design an adaptive or collaborative syllabus which would allow students to participate in shaping their course (e.g., setting lecture/discussion topics, developing assignment parameters, drawing up participation rubrics, or hammering out marking expectations)? Rather than having a course that is already etched before the first students cross the classroom threshold (physical or virtual), could we develop an intentionally responsive course that would allow us to adjust to the needs and desires of these students, rather than using their feedback to shape the next iteration, which will be delivered to different students in a different setting?
And setting aside the official nomenclature used by university administration and registrars, what are the ways we could make any course authentically “hybrid” in nature? How could we integrate digital and in-person components (anything from lecture delivery to discussion spaces and structures to assignment formats) to increase the accessibility of our courses, and welcome in students whose lives have never fit comfortably into the “status quo” university experience?
Finally, and of critical importance: what are the implications of these (re)designs on our own workload as instructors? How can we ensure that we are not simply building and then running multiple parallel versions of our courses, our lectures, our marking burdens? What tools or supports would we need from our departments or campuses – and if they don’t already exist, how could we agitate for them?
There is no one-size-fits-all solution
A healthy pedagogical environment relies on a dynamic interplay between students, educators, class content and delivery, and administrative structures. The fluidity among the parties involved suggests that a one-size-fits-all approach to strengthening our teaching during this time is elusive.
However, while we have innumerable competing individual needs as we head “back” into our somehow brand-new classrooms, we are also navigating a collective experience – and we hope to draw strength from that sense of community and our shared goals. We are ultimately sharing this experience of determining what future education will look like, and how to talk about what lies behind us and how it changed us.
There are essential repairs to make, and there are also new opportunities to seize. As vaccines stimulate our bodies to build up immunity to the COVID-19 disease, how can we also work to build resilience and strength during this transitional time? In order to imagine and then enact the post-pandemic future we want, it is crucial that we reflect on what we have lost in our teaching and acknowledge the individual and at times profound traumas impacting our personal lives. Perhaps most of all, we need to reach out to each other to share our experiences and ideas. We know this work is difficult, but it is a process that allows us to look forward, with hope.
Maria Assif is an associate professor, teaching stream, first-year writing coordinator, and faculty advisor of the B.A. in English, UTSC/Master of teaching in the OISE English department at University of Toronto Scarborough; Sonja Nikkila is an assistant professor, teaching stream, English department at the University of Toronto Scarborough; Shivon Sue-Chee is a statistics and data science educator and consultant.