Lessons from teaching in times of COVID – 2020-2021

December 6, 2021
December 6, 2021 admin

Lessons from teaching in times of COVID – 2020-2021

I was asked to write about what the COVID pandemic has been like for professors, and the effects of transition back to in-person teaching. I will try from my limited view to put this into perspective, but I’m sure every student, professor, administrator, and staff member has their own story. And the full lessons of this (still ongoing) experience remain to be learned.


I teach filmmaking, which is a hands-on process. So when in-person classes were suspended in the Spring of 2020, my immediate concern was how to provide adequate opportunities for learning once students were no longer allowed to work together on campus. Those last several weeks of classes were a mad scramble to completely rework my syllabi. One silver lining is that the entire film and television industry was in a similar state of upheaval, and we could discuss in my classes how film professionals were adjusting to the pandemic. I also had the advantage of knowing several New York actors, suddenly out of work, who could participate in remote workshops with my directing students. And I was also able to bring in producers, cinematographers, documentarians, and other film professionals to speak to students via Zoom. It wasn’t the same as hands-on work, but the conversation grew wider once I could bring in outside professionals who normally wouldn’t be able to come to Rider.


During this time, I was also conscious of the fact that no matter how stressful this was for us professors, things were infinitely harder for our students. I heard many professors speaking about burnout, and of course things were hard for us, especially for those with families at home, but our students were suddenly sent back home, and in some cases to unstable or challenging environments. Students had to share computers and limited workspace with siblings and parents. And some professors piled on additional reading and additional assignments to make up for in-person work, which made some students feel overwhelmed. And of course the anxiety of the world situation only added stress to the situation.


I appreciated the resilience of our students though. At least in my classes, my students buckled down, adjusted, and did the work to the best of their ability. Ending the semester felt like crossing the finish line of a strenuous race.


When classes resumed in the fall of 2020, I opted to teach entirely in person. The other option was practically doing course replacements – offering some of the same instruction but in a radically transformed way. I felt that would be unfair to my students, and frankly, I’m too new to teaching to feel confident that I could change tack so radically and still provide my students with a proper education in film production.


Teaching on campus during the Fall 2020 semester was a strange experience. The film professors were still offering in-person classes, but it seemed like no one else was there. There were many days in which as far I as I could tell, I was the only one teaching in our building. Often the lights in the hallways wouldn’t even be on when I arrived. And due to social distancing requirements, my students would be spread out in very large spaces. I taught a course for 18 students in the Yvonne Theater, and it was quite a challenge for me and my students to hear each other as we were masked and so spread out in that cavernous space.


All this said, it was inspiring to see how eager my students were to work. Most of their classes were via Zoom in their dorm rooms, so they were grateful to have an instructor physically present. I also appreciated how conscious my students were (at least in my presence) of adhering to COVID safety rules. It felt like we were all in this together.


Now that we’re back to a full campus (which still feels odd after a year teaching in a ghost town), I’m finding that many students are coming back with a renewed commitment, as if they’ve taken a gap year and fully appreciate the value of in-person learning. There are still some hiccups – I’m finding that some students have become too used to missing deadlines and fully completing their work since COVID times have required a large degree of leeway and flexibility. But for the most part, I’m sensing an energy on campus which is inspiring and leading to some good work.


As for me, I’ve learned some things which will forever change the way I teach:


One-on-one check ins
I had many more one-to-one check ins with my students when we were remote, not just about the work, but about how they were navigating work alongside their lives, and I can imagine that continuing to be valuable.


Being able to change direction with assignments or an entire course at a moment’s notice is a helpful skill, and I can imagine approaching courses with a higher degree of flexibility in the future. After all, film production has to be flexible, so why not film production classes?


Remote guest speakers
The fact that Zoom can bring in guest speakers from around the world is definitely something I’d like to keep taking advantage of.


Fostering a professional workspace for classes
In the Spring of 2021, we created a professional film project for our seniors who were unable to go out to LA, and many of them excelled in this environment. If we treat our film upper-level film students like professionals and give them more responsibility, seeing them as colleagues rather than just students – there’s a chance they can rise to the occasion.

Jay Stern
Department of Film and Television