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Opinion: Teaching, learning and flying the plane through the COVID-19 pandemic

To think how it’s been such a short time since we lived normally, and how normal what we are currently doing feels.

It shouldn’t be surprising, because it’s likely one of the reasons our species has been so successful, but I’m often amazed at our capacity to adapt.  Every time I visit the upstairs bathroom in my building at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, I get a reminder. 

Hanging there on the wall, like the old calendar in a post-apocalyptic movie which tells you how long ago the apocalypse was, is a year-old copy of my school’s bathroom newsletter, the Porcelain Press.  (There was one in the downstairs bathroom too, but I tossed it in a fit of pique, another trope from the same movie.)

Looking up at that hot-pink piece of paper, with its cheerful clip art and inspirational quote along the top, forces me to think how different life currently is; how it’s been such a short time since we lived normally. And how normal what we are currently doing feels.  

Cory Gaines

Interestingly, and I don’t think I’m alone, it doesn’t call to mind the chaos that took place between then and now. I suppose that, too, is an evolutionary strategy.

If I had to reduce down all of the past year in my professional life (and in the academic life of my students), I think those are the two ideas that would capture as much of the essence as possible: chaos and adaptability.  Not so much fear, not so much frustration (though there has been some); the major theme running under everything in my classes has been one of people doing their best to deal with the unpredictability of COVID-19 and the legion rules, regulations and changes brought about our response to it. 

In some sense, adapting to change is teaching. I deal with individual humans, not standardized products, and so every class, even ones I’ve taught for years, is new.  The thing that marks this past year as different is the pace and the amount of change.  

Last spring, we were told in an email just prior to spring break that the school was closing for one week longer to help us prepare for remote instruction.  I had heard rumors this might be coming, but didn’t figure our state would shut down.  I couldn’t even conceive of it.  

This is part of a weeklong series marking a year since COVID-19 was first detected in Colorado. The state’s first confirmed cases were announced March 5, 2020.

>> READ THE REST OF THE SERIES

Nonetheless, there I was. How am I supposed to teach courses involving labs over Webex?  More to the point, what the hell is a Webex?   

In times of potential overwhelm, I remember some advice my dad gave me that he got when getting his pilot’s license: Fly the plane. You work your problems from the most immediate and urgent outward. How will that first Monday back work?  Can I still get lunch from the dining hall? How will our first Thursday lab day work?  You get the idea.  

As difficult as I found it, it must’ve been much more complicated for some of my students.  I say this in particular about my adult and vocational students.  Some are my age with children.  With schools shuttered, those children need full-time supervision at home.  

Some, after in-person technical, hands-on classes were canceled, figured that the best way to salvage things was to get a job (or help at home on their farms and ranches), letting my single one-off math class figure itself out. Or not.

Overlaid on top of this were questions ranging from the philosophical to mundane.  I’m not sure if you’ve considered it to this depth, but the grade a student earns is in some sense a communication of proficiency for that particular point in time.  Given my current tools and resources, how can I make class so that an “A” now matches (as best as it can) an “A” from 2019?  

More down to earth was how unconscious teaching has become.  I’ve been doing it so long that I didn’t realize that without actual people in the room, I wouldn’t have the usual informal assessment I depend on: The bored looks telling me to speed up or get them working; the eyes as wide as saucers telling me to slow down. 

As the classes during the pandemic turned to days turned to weeks, the idea of “as seamless as possible” gave way to mitigating damage.  Some students were holding up fine.  Others had to be limped across the finish line to make sure the semester wasn’t a wash:  “Let’s get you through this and you can come back in a semester or a year once the kids are back in school and things ease up.”

We got to the end of the first year, at any rate, my students and I.  I’m proud to say I and the school are still here and persevering.  We have struggled hard to teach through at least a couple shutdowns now (while pushing hard to stay in-person).  

I feel like I’ve arrived at where I am now by sliding in sideways and on fire, but as the old joke goes, any landing you can walk away from …


Cory Gaines is a math and physics instructor at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling.


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