Two Berkeley College Professors Share Lessons Learned During the Pandemic

Wednesday, March 17, 2021
Contact: Ilene Greenfield
Director of Media Relations


by Professor Byron K. Hargrove, PhD, Professor of Social Sciences, Berkeley College Division of General Education, and Director, Berkeley College Honors Program

The two central lessons I found to be extremely helpful during the COVID-19 pandemic have to do with being more open and adaptive to online learning and finding ways to be uber responsive, flexible and caring with my students.     

Lesson #1: Maintain an Attitude of Adaptation 

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 really tested the resolve and adaptability of many college professors, staff and students. One of the biggest lessons I learned as a college professor from the COVID-19 pandemic has to do with embracing the right mindset in times of peace and crisis. In hindsight, I believe my general attitude or openness to trying online learning and my willingness to adapt really saved me during the COVID crisis. Despite my initial reluctance and initial criticisms over our College’s historically heavy online administrative oversight for every online course, I adapted and began teaching social sciences courses both online and onsite around 2015. I was even asked by a department chair to develop curriculum for a new applied psychology online course for the College. Surprisingly, I found that there were strengths to both modalities. My attitude shift and new training experiences helped me to improve my on-site teaching and reinvigorated my interest in teaching. Several events, like transitioning from Blackboard to Canvas LMS within 18 months in 2018, completing Quality Matters training, having spirited pedagogical debates with my colleagues, and teaching our students using both online and hybrid formats, helped me see the value of being constantly adaptable, intentional, and open to trying out new online tools to better engage our students in our current digital world.

Consequently, unlike many of my colleagues at other institutions, I was among a group of online faculty who were more comfortable, experienced and better prepared for the sudden pivot to ALL online courses when the COVID-19 pandemic struck the world of higher education. Since I was already teaching both on-site and online course, the “shock and awe” of the COVID-19 transition was minimal for me at work. Since my on-site courses were essentially run like hybrid courses with various CANVAS tools, the transition to fully online was, again, minimal. The only real significant change and addition to my repertoire was Zoom. Before COVID-19, I didn’t know what Zoom was and often overlooked the Zoom button. Now, I can’t imagine my courses or other meetings with colleagues without it. Now, I use Zoom to record lectures and to provide virtual office hours each week. Interestingly, I have had more office hour visits using Zoom in one term than I ever did while I was holding on-site office hours for years!  Thus, I am very glad Berkeley College invested in this technological trend years ago and provided the necessary infrastructure and training required to pivot to an online environment. That vision along with a positive attitude of openness and adaptation helped me adjust to my new work life during the pandemic. 

Lesson #2:  Find Ways to Show That You are Responsive, Flexible and Caring

A second lesson I learned was the high impact of being uber responsive, flexible and caring with my students during the pandemic.  It goes without saying that COVID-19 has hit many homes and hurt many people, organizations and industries. For me, I have had a harder time coping with my home life than my work life. I constantly deal with many new work-life issues, including how to best manage dual career responsibilities, family health concerns, multiple kids’ remote learning schedules, work-home boundaries and personal space needs, mental and physical health, or feelings of isolation and being trapped.  Although we did not have COVID-19 infections in our home, I know of many people and students who had to console family members and friends with the death, illness and isolation caused by COVID-19. Many of our own students are dealing with the same issues as parents and as children of parents impacted by COVID-19.

When we pivoted to the online format, I made sure that responsiveness was my guiding principle. I constantly checked my email and used my CANVAS app and Outlook app to receive and reply to any messages from students both day and night.  I wanted to make sure they had a direct line with me despite being online. I often got messages of appreciation like, “thanks for getting back to me so fast,” and many students documented the effectiveness of this approach in my course evaluations. My students felt heard, attended to and respected. Simply communicating in a timely manner can make a world of difference to anxious or confused students. 

Along with responsiveness, I believe a simple touch of being flexible and caring goes a long way with helping our students. For example, I would often be flexible with my deadlines and provide extensions where necessary.  One change that had a positive impact on students in my 15-week courses was the replacement of the weekly graded discussions during Weeks 5, 10, and 15 to “Free-Chat” Discussions. Instead of requiring discussion posts focused on chapter content or additional research, I used the discussion forums as safe spaces for students to share their highs and lows during the week. I was blown away by what my students were sharing. I learned so much about their personal tragedies with COVID-19, aspirations and accomplishments, and worries.  Many of them spoke about life events rather than course content. It also seemed that they appreciated hearing and sharing these things with each other.  Given my counseling psychology background, I am aware of the importance of allowing people to vent especially during a time of crisis.  This was indeed therapeutic for my students and it also helped them remain engaged in the course content and with each other.

In conclusion, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many colleges and universities to operate in a crisis management mode. I am thankful that our College was forward thinking enough to embrace the trend toward online learning.  More importantly, I am glad that I embraced this change years ago and was open to learning more about how to best utilize online learning tools so that I could comfortably engage with my students while still being myself. I was prepared and comfortable when COVID arrived. Based on my course evaluations and grade center, it appears that my students enjoyed my courses and learned a lot despite the stressful changes caused by the pandemic. I believe that my positive attitudes about online learning along with my willingness to be responsive, flexible, and caring in my emails, posts, and types of assignments made a difference with my students. I encourage other faculty to employ these lessons in their own ways. I will continue to execute these lessons even when we return to campus. 



A Time for Leniency, Accountability and Laughter


by Professor Luisa Ferreira, PhD, English, Berkeley College Division of General Education

When I was asked what I have learned from teaching during this pandemic, I have to admit that a bunch of ideas flooded my mind, yet it was hard to have a name for these, to adequately describe them. It seemed a blur, in a way, as if I had “magically” adapted to establishing a new rapport with students. After thinking about this for some time, I realized that, although I have learned so much and have made adjustments, I am still, in fact, learning each day.

Here then, are the five factors that force me to reevaluate my purpose as an instructor:

  1. Leniency (while also establishing accountability): I have always been accused of being too lenient, yet this trait has been rather useful during COVID. My philosophy has been to give students a “second chance,” so I like to have amnesty periods, where a missed assignment can be made up. I find that now, as many students are new to the online module, this is even more important. It allows them not to lose hope. There is always a chance to submit a missed assignment. However, the responsibility of doing one’s best to keep up with deadlines is also stressed. There is room for error, but students also feel like the grade they earned is one for which they have worked very hard.

  2. How to keep humor alive: This has been a challenge, indeed. My students can attest to my continual humor, which makes learning some topics a bit easier. However, not being in the class, and not being mandated to have Zoom sessions, means I can’t tell jokes. When I write something humorous, I don’t see students laughing. Those who join my voluntary Zoom meetings get a glimpse of this, as, for example, when they ask me how long an essay has to be, and I respond,“70 pages.” Sometimes, I have students apologizing for too many emails, wanting to know if it is alright to ask another question, and I start off the email with “For a small fee…” It may not be as effective as it is in the classroom, but I notice is still puts them at ease. Even my Zoom recordings of lessons have a joke or two to break the monotony, and it is awesome when I receive an email from a student with, “I watched your Zoom…LOL.”

  3. Being in control: In no way does this mean that I have become authoritarian. In fact, I have had to learn to keep my own emotions under control. For example, we just had a discussion board called “Mid-semester Blues,” where students were asked to share their feelings about challenges, on a personal or professional level, during the pandemic. As always, the discussion boards allow the closest interaction possible among classmates in a remote setting, and everyone was willing to describe frustrations of feeling isolated, worries over ill family members, or fears about our nation “hanging by a thread.” I also receive this communication in numerous emails, and, sadly some of those have included loss of jobs or the death of loved ones. I am sympathetic to each person, but I noticed, at first, that I was having a difficult time responding, since I also felt helpless, afraid, and depressed. However, this is where controlling these fears comes into play. I may be experiencing the same level of anxiety as they are, but I respond in a positive way, encouraging them not to give up, reminding them of what a great job they are doing. “This, too, shall pass,” may be cliché, but it is a necessary reminder, as well.

  4. Knowing my resources: It is fortunate that Berkeley had faculty and staff learn Canvas when we made the transition a few years ago, and I am grateful for the long hours I spent trying to master this. On site, Canvas was used to post grades and announcements, reinforcing what I said in class. Nothing can take the place of person-to-person interaction, and I miss discussing issues with my classes during office hours, where I could address each individual’s concerns. Now, I have to do this remotely. While I was online for many hours after class, I have become accustomed to doing so even more in order to answer questions about grades or assignments. In addition, since so many individuals are becoming increasingly distressed, professors have the advantage of contacting personal counselors or academic advisors, who can assist students and help them overcome barriers to their success.

  5. Acknowledging strengths: My motto for students during these difficult times is, “You are stronger than you know.” This does not mean I minimize what they are feeling, but I remind them that while the new normal does not seem normal at all, they are surviving—and they will succeed! It’s OK to feel panicked and scared. They are courageous and resilient, and they have proved this to themselves over and over. We also write about history, about past pandemics, about the ingenuity of the medical community. Our ancestors have survived, as will we. I ask them to focus on the topics they write about: husbands, wives, children, parents, religion--anyone and anything that inspires them. Lastly, I tell them that, when they are older, they will have a tremendous tale to tell their children and grandchildren, the story of their sacrifices, of their tenacity, of the resilience of the human spirit!