Starting any new job can stir up nervous jitters. Starting one as a college professor during a pandemic that requires learning a whole new way of teaching can ratchet up the nerves beyond just anxious butterflies.

For three new faculty members, Dr. Samantha McDonald, assistant professor of exercise science in the School of Kinesiology and Recreation (KNR); Jason Reblando, assistant professor of photography in the Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts; and Nathan Stephens, assistant professor in social work in the School of Social Work, it’s a shared reality.

Stephens thought—like many people in the early days of the pandemic—that maybe the coronavirus (COVID-19) would only stick around for a month or two.

“When that didn’t happen, I began to have conversations about different modes of teaching,” Stephens said. “At first we were in-person and online, and then we shifted to all online. It was unanticipated.”

He said it’s been hard not having students stay after class or come in early, which puts a damper on cultivating relationships. Stephens said he appreciates his new colleagues in Social Work for their support and encouragement as he begins his teaching career, but he misses having “water cooler” conversations with them.

He said that teaching via Zoom has its challenges, but he’s making the most of it and trying to think first about his students and how they are coping.

“I do feel almost like an entertainer sometimes trying to make it light, but I want to be aware of what their day has been like,” he said. “I try to make a point to ask how they’re doing. It’s a juggling act, but it’s not what’s just convenient for me.”

Stephens said the situation has caused him to notice and appreciate his students’ determination.

“I admire their ability to change and adapt this quickly,” he said. “They have a stick-to-itiveness. I have respect and admiration for their ability to change, and I’m in awe of their energy.”

Reblando said he’s looking forward to in-person classes again someday, but he thinks he’s become a better professor and more organized during the pandemic.

“Not that I wasn’t organized before, but I don’t want students to be lost,” he said, noting that he posts assignments in multiple places. “It’s like wearing a belt and suspenders; I want to ensure that students can always find what they need.”

His classes involve digital photography, lessons in lighting, portraiture, and bookmaking.

“I feel like photography has been a smooth transition to remote learning,” he said. “Students can make, share, and critique the work online. It’s a shame that we can’t put prints on the wall, but students have done some very personal and powerful work. They really rose to the occasion.”

He’s teaching a photo book design class with a goal of self-publishing a custom-made book, which he says is no small accomplishment for students. He also gives them a lot of credit for continuing to engage while staring at a lit-up screen all day.

“I know everyone is going through the same thing, trying to stay safe,” he said. “They continue to make good work outside and on campus. They’ve made their own studios in their homes. I think they’ve adapted pretty well.”

Teaching online was also new to McDonald, and she also misses the face-to-face interaction with students and faculty.

The biggest challenge is that McDonald teaches applied classes, meaning they are, by nature of the subject matter, hands-on. Normally, students would be performing fitness tests and assessment interviews, including checking blood pressure and measuring waist circumference. They started out that way but now can only observe their instructor going through the processes remotely. Moving forward, McDonald is interested in trying a new program that’s been developed by the American College of Sports Medicine.

“I want to pilot it next semester and run the testing myself,” McDonald said. “We can videotape correct and incorrect techniques and give students live feedback of their videos.”

McDonald said the positives include the 100-percent support she’s felt from her department, and she’s learned a few things herself while teaching online.

“I’ve gained a new skill since online delivery systems are new and important,” she said. “I have fun recording the lectures and talking to myself. Plus, I love my topic.

“I felt closely connected to the KNR faculty from the start during the interview process.”

Senior Sydney Holt is an exercise science major and a student in McDonald’s Exercise Programming for Neuromuscular Fitness class. She said moving online has been a challenge, but McDonald has been a great help—but not just for posting lectures and demonstrations for the class.

“She’s also been very understanding and flexible with course work,” Holt said. “That has been really nice, especially with how overwhelming things felt early on (in the semester).” 

Knowing that she has the support of McDonald has helped Holt adjust.

“Although at the beginning I felt very overwhelmed, I now feel prepared for each online lecture,” she said. “And, I know that Samantha is a good resource if I ever have any questions.”

It’s been rewarding for McDonald to watch her students doing their best. She said she’s happy to have seen them all smile during class.

“These students don’t complain,” she said. “What is really awesome is they’ve been very flexible because I’ve been flexible. They seem to be going with it and trying to be patient.”

Apply now for 2021.