The domino effect | Supporting staff to support students in a time of isolation
In this article we explore how the Humanities team at Curtin College shifted to teaching in a Digital Campus during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here is their account of preparing for the sudden alteration of mode of delivery.
As we transitioned to online teaching, we hurried to implement strategies to support our students’ learning in a time of great anxiety. We recognised that in caring for our students it was vital not to overlook the impact that such a sudden change, including isolation, could also have on our teaching staff. Staying connected with fellow colleagues and providing support to one another to adapt to digitally assisted teaching ensured that lecturers were, in turn, able to support their students to the fullest.
The need for support and connection between lecturers
We are fortunate that our team consists of several experienced online educators who often shared tips with the rest of the team. To do so, we ensured that everyone felt connected and supported by using several forms of communication (phone calls, a WhatsApp group, Microsoft Teams and regular email). We also provided training sessions and videos on online teaching techniques and Zoom strategies, always encouraging our lecturers to test the software before live sessions.
Up to that point, the focus of our efforts were on upskilling and communicating information to staff. However, a desire for more meaningful contact became apparent. As we considered how the lives of both our students and our staff had drastically changed, we realised that personal connection and welfare were in fact as important as tech-support and professional development. All our team members were experiencing challenging times due to time-constraints brought about by the pandemic, compounded by the usual demands of marking and material development during trimester, and changes to personal circumstances. Aware that our staff had different needs, including some who lived alone and were particularly isolated while others were adapting to working from home with a full house, it became apparent that the opportunity to connect with each other was going to be paramount. As a note, normally, peer-support would occur in the staffroom at lunchtime, where the team would come together, share ideas, solutions, jokes, experiences and connect with each other. Hence, the idea was born to make this experience happen virtually!
Setting up a virtual lunchroom
Our timetable allows for a two-hour break as “common free time” each Wednesday at lunchtime. This seemed to be a perfect time to arrange a catch up over a meal to avoid the inadvertent stress with yet another formal Zoom meeting. We wanted to spend our time together encouraging staff to share experiences and anecdotes, and give space to deal with staff’s different levels of COVID-19 isolation or anxiety. Establishing the “virtual lunchroom” was simple and effective. A reoccurring Zoom invitation was sent to our staff inviting them to come and connect. Participation was entirely optional, however, we quickly formed a regular group of attendees.
The virtual lunchroom was warmly received and allowed staff who might not normally see each other to catch up and connect. Other than ensuring an allocated Zoom host, who also occasionally initiated conversation, there was no additional administration requirements. Through discussions, some members indicated they were also keen to get on board and help with additional projects that otherwise would have fallen through the cracks. Importantly, the informal chats led to the sharing of ideas and thoughts about how to increase the sense of connection for our students. These informal chats have catalysed new projects that we are now being initiated.
While we halted the virtual lunchroom in between study periods, staff were keen to resume them in the second trimester. Additionally, lecturers who were unable to teach this trimester have asked permission to attend since the virtual lunchroom has now become a supportive social network for the whole team.
Because of our positive experiences, we encourage all teams to consider setting up a virtual lunchroom. It has strengthened our team and provided a much needed outlet for staff members during uncertain times, a creative space to discuss ideas that will continue to enhance our student support, and has provided an emphasis on connection through the Digital Campus for us and students as needed in the coming months.
To continue the conversation on this topic, contact Frances Rhodes at Curtin College (Frances.Rhodes@curtincollege.edu.au).
If you’d like to share your learning and teaching strategies and good practice with the wider community, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Photo credit: flickr.com/soham_pablo]