January 27, 2021

Beating the remote teaching blues

Author: Ned Hoskin
Source:  NYSUT Communications
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Professor Reem Jaafar
Caption: Reem Jaafar, co-director of Academic Peer Instruction in the Department of Mathematics, Engineering and Computer Science at LaGuardia Community College. She is a member of the Professional Staff Congress, NYSUT’s affiliate representing faculty and staff at the City University of New York.

As part of our Shared Success series, we offer these "success stories" to spotlight different methods, lessons and creative strategies that NYSUT teachers are using to educate students during a pandemic.

At LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, as in schools and colleges all over the state, the transition to remote learning in March 2020 created anxiety for students and educators.

“The uncertainties surrounding the circumstances scared me as well,” remembers math professor Reem Jaafar, “but with the help of close colleagues, we managed to move the courses to distance learning swiftly. It was ‘learn as you go’ mode for a few weeks.” Recording live lectures for students to access at home helped. But, even in normal times, math tends to be stressful.

“Mathematics anxiety is real,” said Jaafar, co-director of Academic Peer Instruction in the Department of Mathematics, Engineering and Computer Science at LaGuardia. She is a member of the Professional Staff Congress, NYSUT’s affiliate representing faculty and staff at the City University of New York.

She and her colleagues created a new learning environment, a new reality in which students soon realized they needed to be more self-driven to succeed.

“I found myself doing wellness check-ins with students on most days,” Jaafar said, and their concerns were not all about schoolwork. Her students are adults, living in a real world during a pandemic.

“Unfortunately, some were coping with the loss of wages — others were coping with the loss of family members,” she said. “Wellness check-ins became an integral part of my pedagogy.”

The situation required more flexibility than Jaafar would usually provide, but for weeks after the transition, she was happy to see that students had adapted well.

The semester did not pass without a sad note, however. One senior student dropped out prior to graduation due to extenuating family circumstances related to COVID–19.

In the summer session, class capacity was manageable, and students seemed to know what to expect.

“They hit the ground running on day one,” Jaafar said. “Mathematics anxiety in the distance-learning environment wasn’t completely gone, but retention in my class was 100 percent.”

The Fall semester went much better largely thanks to professional development and to the experience gained during the Spring and Summer sessions, she said.

Jaafar said it is key for the college to continue to provide students with remote-learning devices and to allow manageable class sizes. Currently, all of her courses are at capacity, at numbers similar to face-to-face courses before the transition to remote.

“The class-size cap should remain intact to keep our momentum in retaining students,” she said. “It takes more than teaching to keep our students engaged and motivated.”

Teaching Tip

Q: What would be your advice to those who are still struggling to adapt to the new modality?

A: “I would encourage them to identify what you are struggling with — technology? pedagogy? other issues that may be more personal? Then find a few colleagues who you trust, share your concerns and ask them for help.

“You may both benefit from addressing your concerns as sometimes we build certain assumptions and it takes another point of view for us to question those assumptions.”

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