Building Teacher-Student Connections

Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) faculty support students through demonstrating their own vulnerability and humanness.

When Emmanuel Santa-Martinez and Dalia Salloum started the academic year at Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) as first-year, full-time professors, they had no clue what would await them come spring semester. As concerns over COVID-19 caused colleges and universities around the globe to transition to virtual learning, educators had to rethink their framework.

ACUE-credentialed biology professor Melissa Hardy and her colleagues had a week to determine the best way to adapt the coursework to best serve their students—with the understanding that many may need extra accommodations.

They recognized that many of their students also had job and family responsibilities. Through the COVID crisis, the SLCC faculty has committed to working with students by providing extra resources and granting extensions on projects—whatever it takes to ensure student success.

“We had students who lost jobs, some who were facing family challenges, and others who work in healthcare or retail,” Hardy said. “On top of that, they’re now having to take online classes, a new experience for many—all while some are rightfully worried about being exposed to viral infections.”

Focusing on Essential Learning Outcomes

Hardy and her colleagues opted to review their coursework and condense it down to the essential learning outcomes. They tried to keep all coursework student-centered, actionable and focused. “We went learning outcome by learning outcome and developed an outline, some micro-lectures, online Canvas quizzes, worksheets and discussion boards for each module. It was really bare-bones and organized,” Hardy said.

“The modules have been really efficient. Our students don’t feel we’re teaching less. Yes, we’re missing the face-to-face, but we’re keeping the same standards and the students appreciate it,” Santa-Martinez said. 

Leveraging Open Educational Resources

The faculty at SLCC are taking advantage of open education resources (OER) like OpenStax to provide additional resources to their students during the remote transition

“I’ve been an evangelist for OpenStax for a long time. Not only is it free, but our students don’t have to create a login and give their information to some big corporation to access it,” Hardy said. “The movement toward OERs is really a social justice movement—it’s inclusive, equitable and accessible. A lot of the commercial textbook companies are providing similar services in the short-term, but this is OpenStax’s mission.”

The flexibility OpenStax provides is especially valuable to non-traditional students. “I have one student who told me she likes OpenStax because she has the option to study on her phone during her work breaks. The material is straight to the point, provides great images, and it’s easy for me to incorporate specific sections and attributions right into my lectures,” Santa-Martinez said.

Building Human Connections

Salloum is amazed at the resiliency she’s seen in her students. “I have one student who is a nurse and her schedule went crazy with COVID. I called to check in on her and she’s in tears,” Salloum said. “However, a couple of weeks in, she’s back on our classroom discussion boards helping other students. It’s really nice to see they didn’t just throw their hands up in the air.”

Hardy said this ability to recognize the humanity piece of education is something she took away from her ACUE course. “I try to show students we’re all human. We’re not just talking heads—we’re real people with real challenges. Showing vulnerability to my students is important and builds a connection that shows we’re all in this together.”

Salloum, who along with Santa-Martinez, is in process of finishing ACUE’s course in Effective Teaching Practices, reflected on a portion of an effective teaching module that focused on helping students persist in their studies. “It was so nice to see a course focused on college teaching has a module on encouraging your students,” she said. “When I tell my students that I believe in them, they really do respond. And I’m seeing it with higher retention rates and better outcomes.”

“Through it all, the last semester has been a time for Santa-Martinez to reflect. “This experience has taught me that it’s okay to be vulnerable. We’re all human and our students see that. And having our whole team pursuing the same goal is inspiring and motivating—we’re all pushing our students to succeed.”

Melissa Hardy, PhD is an ACUE-credentialed assistant professor of biology at Salt Lake Community College.

At the time this piece was published, Emmanuel Santa-Martinez, PhD, assistant professor of biology and Dalia Salloum, PhD, instructor of biology were completing their ACUE Certification in Effective College Instruction.

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