3 Important Things I will Take away from the Year of COVID

With the Thanksgiving feast a few weeks behind us, another year is about to go by. Christmas is fast approaching, and the customary decorations of red, green and white are everywhere and small twinkling lights adorn houses and trees, brightening the long, dark nights of the winter solstice … Well, that’s what happens every year, but I’m really not sure this winter, because I haven’t been outside enough to know.

I didn’t grow up celebrating Christmas, don’t decorate my house for the holiday season and don’t make a point of driving around the city taking in holiday lights as many like to do here in the United States. In a normal year, though, the holiday season offers me more opportunities to get together with friends and colleagues to catch up, and as I drive to and from holiday parties and end-of-the-year gatherings, it’s hard not to notice and be affected by the warm, cheery spirit of the season.

With the stay-at-home order being reinstated in much of California this year, there’s not even a chance to enjoy a casual dinner out or a drink with friends to mark the passing of another year. But I’m determined today to not let the Grinch (a.k.a. COVID-19) steal my Christmas as I look back on my 2020.

If COVID took a lot away from the enjoyment of our lives as usual, it also made me see the blessings I take for granted and gave me a reason to try something new. So, in that spirit, here are three important things I’m going to take away from this year plagued (literally) by uncertainty and a sense of loss.

First, an old dog can learn a new trick — or three. Accustomed to lively interactions in my classroom, I was devastated when COVID forced me to teach all my fall classes online. The temptation was great to just get through the next semester or two and cross my fingers that we’d be back in the classroom soon enough, but I decided to take the high road. I delved into the brave new world of instructional design, scrapped all my syllabi, and rebuilt every course from scratch, streamlining course structure and removing every possible obstacle, so that students could engage with the course material better, even with the added challenges of online learning.

I can tell you, it was a lot of work, but what many of my students told me at the end of the semester made it all worthwhile. They not only enjoyed attending my class but also felt that they learned a lot this semester. One of them wrote, “It is rare for me to say this, but everything in [my course] was important!” Another student said that my course was “the only thing that kept [them] sane this semester.” Now I know — I can teach just as well online as in person. Even better, what I learned about removing obstacles to learning will also make me a better teacher in any classroom — virtual or in person.

Second, I LOVE my students! It sounds corny but I do. During the long summer, following the abrupt end to classroom interaction in March, I realized how much I gain from meaningful interaction with my students, and how it fuels my desire to teach. I was nervous when the fall semester began. What if, despite all my efforts, technology-mediated classroom interaction would fall flat? After the rocky first week, when both my students and I were on a steep learning curve about online communication, things got better quickly.

We figured out a few tricks to make it easier to exchange ideas, stay in touch and produce meaningful academic work online. My upper-level students even figured out, with minimal prompting from me, how to deliver an effective team slide presentation online.

The enthusiasm they brought to every online class meeting, insights they shared in their assignments and positive feedback they gave me — these are the things that kept me going through the long, tough semester, when I was working an average of 60 hours a week. I came out even more energized by my students’ reaction and am excited to go back into another semester of online teaching.

Third, I get by with a little help from my friends. One of the biggest challenges of the prolonged pandemic is social isolation.

Working from home, eating alone and watching Netflix became the everyday routine, and it got to be really hard even for a self-acknowledged introvert like me.

What sustained me through this period of COVID-induced seclusion was support from a small group of friends. I’ve played tennis every single weekend with a handful of trusted friends throughout the pandemic; I’ve also had a regular Zoom chat with several of my friends, just to stay in touch with each other, vent some stress and share our thoughts and emotions through this time of uncertainty. I don’t know how I would have managed without the comradery and support they offered me for these months.

And last but not least, my cat Lima saved me numerous times by reminding me that life isn’t so bad after all when we can curl up and bask in the sun streaming through the window of our living room.

So this holiday season, I will take to heart these gifts COVID gave me, and wish for a healthy and more hopeful new year ahead.