An instructor confesses: I have issues

By Marina Whitchurch, Public Speaking Instructor

Last year my wife and I had a conversation about my going back to school to get my Ph.D. I told her, after much thought and reflection, that I did not want to be a student again. I felt I had passed some sort of invisible threshold that, for myself, wouldn’t allow me to keep up with today’s use of technology in higher education. There were a myriad of other reasons, but that is the one that I bring to you today.

Because today, and the last several weeks, I have found myself in the role of the “student” and I am struggling. No, I am not a Ph.D. student. But I am a student of technology. And I am struggling student. I am struggling to learn all of these online software programs: 5 of them at this time and I feel like there will be more as we learn and grow into this new era of communicating. I am struggling to find new and innovative ways to communicate with my students because my usual classroom shenanigans aren’t working in this “online” environment—and sometimes the online environment isn’t even working!

And I am struggling to find empathy for myself and for those around me for whom I normally empathize. And now I feel guilty. And now I feel shame for feeling guilty. And shame for not being empathetic1. And now I’m mad at myself. And I remember I’m still supposed to be learning this stuff because the term begins in… 3. 2. 1.

And now the anxiety sets in. How do I raise my hand to ask a question? No, I mean… in a ZoomRoom full of people all asking questions, with a moderator/facilitator doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing, and the chat box moving so quickly… how? As my anxiety and frustration rises… how? And a looming deadline…?? I was about to implode. I hadn’t felt this way since grad school and I barely made it out of there alive. Do you know how incredibly difficult it is to raise your hand, to raise your voice, and to ask for help from your colleagues? Suddenly, learning was not enjoyable and teaching seemed just plain daunting.

So, I took a step back. Actually, I took about 12,326 steps and took a hike into our neighbor’s 20 acres. On my 46th birthday. I meditated. I reflected. This is an issue that is important and needs to be addressed. It’s not a learning disability. That would be unfair to say. But it is a learning issue.

As I took on the role of student in this very bizarre, self-contained environment, with the looming deadline of the term’s start date and cheers from colleagues from near and far, I was drowning in my own negative self talk, anxiety and, ultimately, depression. Thus, the hike. And it worked. Mostly.

It opened up some pathways of clarity. I went back to a text I had found at a used book sale and always had the intention of reading, “The Art of Teaching Adults: How to become an exceptional instructor & facilitator” by Peter Renner. In the first chapter, he outlines several teaching theories from Friere to Rogers to Knowles and others. Carl Rogers’ contributions to facilitation and establishing trust through communication and building empathy and safety was something that spoke to me2.

So, I went into the woods. I had a little talk with myself. I watched the sunrise. This space where we learn; where we teach; where we have made our home has been upended. This space is no longer “normal.” Or at least whatever our definition of normal is to us. And I told my students the same. What we are experiencing…is not normal!

And I kicked rocks. And I threw rocks. Nothing is the same anymore. And yet, some things are very much the same. I am still a good teacher. I know how to communicate. I know how to educate. I know how to entertain. These things are still the same. Communicate. Educate. Entertain. It became my new mantra as I hiked back down the ridge. I remembered the Mr. Rogers quotation3 that Dr. Kemper-Pelle sent out and I remembered what I Ioved about teaching.

This term is not like the others, this term is not the same. But how we respond to it will determine how we are remembered and we can create a new normal for ourselves.

“So let’s pause for a moment,” I told my classes, “and talk about what isn’t working for us.” And I gave them all a moment to speak. It was incredible. I saw them wipe away tears, smile with joy, and sigh with relief. Some were tired of just being alone and isolated and some, like me, were freaked out about all the new technology they had to learn to complete a degree they were so close to finishing. While some didn’t have any issues with technology, we asked if we could lean on them to be team leaders as we venture forth—and they happily agreed!

Our problems and frustrations are far from over. In fact, we could argue, they are really just beginning. As we get new information every day that sheds light on how long we will be separated from one another, we must continue to adapt and be fluid, be empathetic and strong. It’s been said before and we will say it again, “We will get through this.” Just don’t be timid or shy about asking for help. And please, don’t be shy about responding to the request. Only TOGETHER can we truly be RCC STRONG.

  1. Brown, Brene. (2007). “I Thought it Was Just Me (but it isn’t).” Penguin Random House, LLC: New York, NY.
  2. Renner, Peter. (1993). “The Art of Teaching Adults: How to become an exceptional instructor & facilitator.” Hignell Printing: Vancouver, Canada.
  3. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” —Fred Rogers