Back to School Series: Welcoming Back Students and Faculty

How can we ensure a strong and equitable start to the new academic year as our lives continue to be affected by the pandemic? As administrative leaders and faculty grapple with this question, ACUE’s Back to School webinar series convenes expert voices and provides key resources to support higher education’s return to campus this fall.

The first installment, Welcoming Back Faculty and Students, featured Kelly Lester, Director, Center for Faculty Development, The University of Southern Mississippi; Shonda Gibson, Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, The Texas A&M University System; and Natasha LaRose, Program Coordinator, American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC). The discussion was moderated by Kim Middleton, ACUE Academic Strategy Consultant, and included welcoming remarks from Maxine Roberts, Strong Start to Finish, and Rebecca Martin, National Association of System Heads.

Key Takeaways

1. Embrace flexibility

Gibson pointed out that the pandemic taught us that we need to be flexible. At the same time, she noted that educators discovered that they could quickly adapt and “be creative and find solutions. We all got in there and got the work done.”

Lester agreed, adding that she’s found ACUE particularly helpful as a partnership and resource that “gives you tools to gain insight and feedback from your students in a way that’s not about you as a person.”

Lester also commented that addressing safety is the priority. “Use your first couple of days of class to acknowledge that this year’s going to include adapting and flexibility, but also safety is a big concern. In my classroom, I’d want to say, ‘Let’s have a discussion about our ground rules for this class. What is it that you need in my class to feel safe?’ And I think there could be a lot of vulnerability in that.”

“Be flexible with your own self so that you can be flexible with others,” Gibson added.  

2. Resilience and community will carry students and educators

“For us as tribal nations, we’ve always been a resilient type of people,” LaRose said. “And I think we responded as quickly as possible by partnering with ACUE and getting our faculty trained for online courses. That’s a really important step because we’ve been faced with a whole lot of interesting dynamics with the pandemic hitting us.”

Part of resilience, Gibson added, is looking for support when it’s necessary. “Don’t try to do this alone. Our resilience bank accounts are going to run short if you try to do this all on your own.” 

This, she said, extends beyond faculty-student connections to the entire campus. Gibson encouraged instructors to share resources and pose questions to peers within content areas, as well as point students to support systems.

3. People need space to ask questions

“There’s a real openness to having conversations and allowing space for questions,” Lester said. “We may not always have the answers, but if we don’t provide the space for the questions, then I think people feel unheard.”

USM, she explained, holds “Faculty First Week,” featuring teaching development, technology orientations, and guidance on building community.

Gibson agreed that these opportunities are critical to the teaching and learning community. Across the A&M system, she said, there are communities of practice. “What we’ve learned is that collaboration, networking, and sharing among the group is so powerful. I’m seeing so much promise, and I really want to see that continue into the future.”

Gibson also encouraged educators to ask questions of themselves, through a process she describes as “durable innovation.” “Take time to stop and ask yourself what’s not working or what really did work well.”

LaRose noted that AIHEC initiated a biweekly check-in with all the tribal college universities as part of their response to the pandemic. Along with quarterly meetings, they have led to “a continuous communication of new developments and helping each other navigate this whole new world we’re kind of living in.”

4. Embrace creativity

One silver lining of the pandemic is that faculty and leaders alike have stretched themselves creatively to identify new solutions. 

LaRose, for example, discussed how the tribal colleges sought out ways to share resources across campuses and networks. “If we’re being proactive and we can really preserve teaching techniques and go forward, I think we’re building a really strong core of what we can do in the future,” she said.

Lester, meanwhile, is finding ways for students to be involved in their own learning. For example, she offers options for final assignments. “They could write a paper, they could create a piece of artwork and a poem, or they could do a video reflection,” she explained. “And they all had the same guiding questions that got to the core of the content we were covering. 

Gibson saw that faculty who became ACUE-credentialed during the pandemic found new ways to collaborate and brainstorm ideas. “I heard incredible stories of how they came together collectively and they came up with novel solutions. These faculty were able to embrace new tools and new technology to be able to create environments where students could get that information.”

At the end of the day, the panelists agreed, welcoming faculty and students back to campus this fall comes down to being intentional about community, care, and communication. 

“Show care, check in with people, and listen,” Lester said.

Register for the next webinar, Getting Better Prepared for Online and Hybrid Learning, taking place on September 14, 2021, 3:00-4:00 PM ET.