Assistant professor of psychology CJ Fleming is adapting slowly as she returns to her classroom after a year of virtual learning facilitation.
Elon University began online instruction on March 23, 2020. Since then, professors have experienced teaching either entirely or partially online.
But Fleming said this loss of face-to-face interaction is difficult because it pulls faculty away from the job they love to do. Professors’ mental health has suffered too, Fleming said, as the physical separation from their students and the lack of in-person interaction has led to a feeling of loss.
Fleming — who specializes in clinical psychology and mental health — said she has noticed two main things when considering professors’ mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic: fatigue and capacity for working memory. She said fatigue is probably what has affected her most, since she has had to reformat many of her consistently taught classes to fit an online or hybrid format.
“It’s like being a new professor every semester,” Fleming said. “And being a new professor is hard and challenging.”
Fleming said some professors have also developed new health concerns due to COVID-19 to complicate having to manage students physically in the classroom and those who attend virtually.
Human service studies lecturer Monica Burney said the hardest change in her life since the start of the pandemic is using Zoom as a mode of teaching.
“There are certain things that I think are unique to the Elon experience,” Burney said. “I think the teaching and mentoring relationship is one of them, and I do think some of that is lost because of the restrictions that have to be placed.”
Burney said she is willing to do anything to adhere to COVID-19 safety guidelines, but she is also very appreciative of the times when she didn’t have to do that and thinks the quality of teaching is better when students and professors can be together.
Fleming also said it is very difficult to manage students both at home and the classroom, but a lot of professors have figured out different ways to teach.
“The faculty experience of teaching online is totally heterogeneous,” Fleming said.
According to Fleming, there have been more opportunities to be in the classroom during the 2020-21 academic year due to the campus reopening and offering hybrid and in-person courses. Not all professors have returned to the classroom, however; there are still faculty who have accommodations to teach from home.
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These professors are placed in a separate sphere from the rest of the university, Fleming said, and even professors who teach hybrid or in-person courses have completely different experiences dealing with Zoom, Moodle and other online learning resources.
Both Fleming and Burney emphasized the difficulty of having to reorganize their classes around virtual or semi-virtual formats during the last year. Burney said the two other difficult aspects of reorganizing her classes is that she has to make hard decisions about which content she can include in her classes and she has to be less flexible when considering the balance of content and discussion in her courses.
“In terms of mental health and emotional wellness, I’ve had to sit with myself, because there is a certain hubris around teaching,” Burney said.
Additionally, Burney said she has had to check herself and understand that students can sometimes teach themselves without her having to explain the material.
Fleming said the weight of the expectations of both students and professors during the COVID-19 pandemic is different due to responsibilities outside of school and work, whether those responsibilities involve dealing with the loss of a family member, financial pressures or commitments to childcare. Fleming also said these expectations can impact mental health, and more is being asked of people as a society while coping resources are more limited.
“The big thing — and this is true for everyone — is that demands on our time are the same if not more, and ability to meet those demands physically and emotionally is limited,” Fleming said.
She also said nationally speaking, American adults are reporting higher rates of depression and anxiety. This claim was confirmed in a study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which said the number of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder has jumped from 11% in January through June 2019 to 41.1% in January 2021.
Despite the transition and hardships that come with COVID-19, Fleming and Burney are both determined to continue mentally persevering through the pandemic.
Burney said she truly values her relationships with her students, and she sometimes implements 10 minute individual check-ins with her students instead of class.
“We meet and usually talk about an assignment or something,” Burney said. “But it’s just one-on-one time with me and that student.”
Burney said this effort is intentional, and it also helps her to communicate with students who do not necessarily talk in big group settings.
Fleming and Burney both cited relying on their colleagues for assistance. Burney said the community within the human service studies department has been very helpful for her in times of struggle.
“I think faculty are trying to take care of each other in those smaller ways,” Burney said. “Which is just a more organic way of being.”
Elon has made some accommodations to aid local professors, like logistical planning and support for child care and academic resources for kids, according to Burney. Yet, most of the emotional reflections of faculty members are kept within departments and majors rather than discussed en masse.
Regarding coping strategies, Fleming highlighted three recommendations. She first said those struggling with mental health should continue to discover good coping mechanisms used before the pandemic, like mindfulness and exercise.
Then, Fleming recommended recreating the “water cooler environment” as much as one can, which promotes open socialization and friendships throughout the workplace. She cited a loss in camaraderie due to the virtual learning environment.
Finally, Fleming said not to be scared of asking for help.
“No one is an expert on how to figure this out,” Fleming said. “So if you need help, get help.”
Burney said it could be helpful for faculty to have collective moments of reflection but many faculty members are still figuring out the technical difficulties of virtual learning. She also recommended that when people are struggling with mental health, they try to stop fighting with their brains and let their feelings in.
“I try to feel my feelings,” Burney said, “and understand that they will pass.”
As classes start to shift back towards normal, both Fleming and Burney are looking forward to seeing their students in-person again. Fleming said she is hoping the next time she is back in the classroom things will be more similar to how they were before the pandemic, citing struggles in her classes’ energies.
“We’re all experiencing grief in a lot of ways,” Fleming said. “Students especially are grieving that these last two years of college are not the same.”