Chrisa teaches learning skills and supervises the Writing Centre at Camosun. In both roles, she meets with students one-on-one, and is also invited into classes to talk about learning strategies.
Chrisa told me that initially, when the college moved all its classes and services online back in March 2020, “the biggest part of my job was transitioning the Writing Center team to virtual tutoring. Fortunately, we already were using a platform that allowed us to meet with students virtually, we just hadn’t used it that way before.” However, there were also staff in the English Help Centre who provide learning and writing skills to students who had not used this system at all, so “we decided that we needed to get those writing consultants on board with our online booking system as well.” Once working remotely was established for everyone, and we all remember how quickly that happened, the next question was how was Chrisa’s team going to help students, and how were students and faculty going to know that they were still available to provide that help.
“It was a learning curve for all of us, but eventually we were set up and able to reach out to students. We had a fairly quiet spring term, but by summer 2020 word was getting out, and instructors began to respond to our emails asking to be invited into their classes. Marketing our services was quite a bit more challenging in the virtual world because instructors were still new to online teaching, but by fall term, it wasn’t nearly as complicated, and once the word was out we got really busy.”
Chrisa reminded me that, in Fall 2020, I had invited her to co-facilitate some student orientations with me, where I showed them D2L, Collaborate, etc., and she introduced them to the Writing Centre and Learning Skills. She told me “I had taken virtual courses before (including CETL workshops), but hadn’t taught online myself, and one of the best forms of instruction was when I got to shadow you and see what it was like teaching in a live real-time session.” In addition, being an online student yourself is hugely helpful when you are, in turn, supporting students learning how to navigate online learning.
Chrisa told me her biggest challenge while working remotely was feeling isolated. “Trying to connect with people initially felt like swimming through mud, especially when I was sending e-mails but not hearing back from instructors, which was understandable because I knew everybody was struggling at that time.” And she was acutely aware of the challenges students were facing. “Sometimes students couldn’t figure out how to register for an account or book an appointment, so we set up a writing center e-mailbox allowing them to contact us directly with problems or questions. But of course, someone needed to monitor that inbox because often students would contact us when they had technical issues getting into a virtual session. If someone wasn’t checking that inbox regularly, then an hour could pass and it would be too late for that student.”
Chrisa has found many rewards over the past year. “The first is that I feel like the Writing Center team has become much more cohesive because we are now meeting using Teams. Whereas before, because we had offices on both campuses, it was much harder to pull meetings together. I feel that’s also true with some of the other groups I’m a part of – it’s so much easier to meet with people now and I’m sure that will continue.” This has certainly been an observation made by others (myself included) who, in the past, had to regularly travel between campuses for meetings. But Chrisa found another exciting opportunity in virtual teaching: “What really struck me during one of my sessions with international students was that we can meet with students living all over the world. And they were so grateful, and so much fun, and so funny. It was a really inspiring moment for me when I thought wow! This has fantastic possibilities.” And finally, Chrisa is considering continuing with her virtual in-class sessions with students. “I’ve discovered amazing ways to engage students virtually, like using a whiteboard where students are more likely to participate and engage, because it can be anonymous.”
Some of the lessons Chrisa will take away with her from the past year include making sure to ask for help. “I’m better at it, but I’m usually the helper, not the one that asks for help, so that’s been a gradual transition for me. Also, trust my intuition, because it’s been pretty good. And trust that people are resilient, because I’ve been amazed by the resiliency demonstrated by my team and by students. Expect the unexpected, be flexible, and be kind to yourself and to everybody else.” Chrisa reflected that even while knowing we were all in the middle of an extremely stressful situation, most people still expected too much of themselves. “When I meet with students, they often seem upset with themselves because they feel like there’s something wrong with them if they don’t already understand something they are in the process of learning. And I probably had similar feelings as we made this transition to online, I think I was probably pretty hard on myself. Over the past year, the cognitive load has been gigantic for everyone, and when you’re dealing with so many stressors, it’s harder to learn. It’s harder to think clearly. It’s harder to access your analytical capacity. And it’s therefore easy to feel like there’s something wrong with you. So that’s the other lesson learned – make sure to access the support and community that surrounds you, especially when you’re feeling isolated.”
If Chrisa were giving advice to someone suddenly having to move online for work or teaching, “I’d say it’s probably going to be a bumpy ride, but you will probably also enjoy it because you will learn a ton. Make sure to ask for help, and if possible, shadow someone so you can see online teaching in action. In addition, if possible, take baby steps to make it more manageable.” And finally, Chrisa gave some words of wisdom I really appreciated: “take a lot of breaks, listen to uplifting music, take some deep breaths, and build in strategies to help you cope with trying to learn so much new information at once.”
Like Alison in the Centre for Accessible Learning, Chrisa is looking forward to continuing some virtual student support moving forward. “We want to offer both options because students really appreciate that flexibility, so I’m sure we’ll offer some blended options to students and they’ll probably expect it as well.” I can say myself with some certainty that services for students, much like classroom learning, are not going to look the same as they did before, in a good way!