Education faculty member addresses Board of Trustees on teaching this fall

September 18, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As Penn State marks six months since moving to remote teaching just after spring break due to COVID-19, University leaders continue to face multiple factors in efforts this fall to uphold the teaching mission and simultaneously keep students, faculty, staff and community members safe. That balance is played out in every college and every campus at the University, as well as in Old Main, and it's not without challenges.

Last Friday (Sept. 18), Penn State President Eric J. Barron addressed the topic in remarks to the Board of Trustees, and he called on faculty members to share their perspectives.

In his remarks, Barron acknowledged the extraordinary efforts being put forth by so many members of the Penn State community – faculty, staff, Office of Physical Plant employees, members of Environmental Health and Safety, and many others – to enable the University to deliver exceptional teaching – whether in person or remotely.

“That is the way I really feel about the last six months – challenging times, but actually incredible effort on behalf of so many people in this University,” Barron said.

Barron also said that administrators, faculty and staff are all concerned about COVID-19 for themselves and for the community, and that this has predictably created stress. At the same time, the president wanted to share information of positive steps and to thank people for the tremendous number of successes the University has witnessed.

One of those successes is the College of Education.

“In the spring, like our colleagues across the University, we flipped to remote teaching/learning at the drop of a dime; adapted to new grading schemes with only a few weeks left in the spring semester; put together virtual commencements for spring and summer; and worked from home while being on lockdown managing our jobs and our families,” said Kim Lawless, dean of the College of Education.

“As we progressed into the summer, our faculty and staff worked together to rearrange portfolios and classrooms; figured out how to de-densify our spaces; switched to a new budget model and SIMBA; and were able to maintain healthy enrollments for fall because our departments were generous with offerings of in-person classes.”

Lawless said the College of Education believes in the importance of in-person teaching, so faculty and staff worked hard to be able to offer roughly 60% of its course offerings with some level of in-person instruction this fall.

“Many of our students, especially our undergraduates, have indicated they really want in-person instruction; it is why they chose University Park as their campus,” Lawless said. “For some students, we are the only stable home they know and the only place they have access to the resources they need to learn.”

With this in mind, faculty looked at unconventional ways to teach their courses with at least some in-person components.

“Dana Mitra is teaching her class outdoors, at the picnic pavilion on the corner of Curtin Road and University Drive. Alex List is teaching in a converted garage-like space in Wagner Building; I am co-teaching an in-person first-year seminar with a staff member who asked to be able to contribute to the college’s in-person teaching footprint; and Peggy Van Meter is teaching a course in the Bryce Jordan Center,” Lawless said.

“It truly does take a strong partnership across the University to support our students in their educational experience in such a difficult time. We never could have gotten to where we are without all of the hard work, perseverance and teamwork exhibited by our faculty and staff. The way we are staying together as a community, I know we will emerge stronger on the other side of this pandemic,” Lawless said.

Van Meter, associate professor of education, had the opportunity to share her experiences and challenges with the trustees on Friday.

“I'm teaching this class because my college thinks it's really important to offer in-person classes as much as we can and particularly for freshmen and these larger enrollment classes,” Van Meter told the board. “I volunteered to take on this class because I agree it’s important, and I'm able to teach in person.”

Van Meter said that while students appreciate being able to gather and her overall assessment is that teaching and learning in the BJC is going well, the experience hasn't been without its challenges.

“I think the biggest challenge that I have had is just managing everything,” she said. She said it’s challenging to keep track of which students must attend class via Zoom because they are in quarantine, along with managing technology problems, while remaining focused on students and learning.

“The good news is we just finished our fourth week of classes and our instructional team has really come together to figure things out. There were some bumps at the beginning, but it’s smoothing out and feeling more and more like a regular class every day,” Van Meter said.

She said what has surprised her the most is how physically safe she feels when she’s teaching.

“To be honest, I'm someone who is anxious about this virus. I don't want to catch it. I'm trying not to give it to anybody else. So, I expected to have a level of discomfort or anxiety while I was teaching, but the truth is they have done such a fabulous job of setting things up in the BJC I actually forget that I'm supposed to be feeling uncomfortable,” she said.

At the same time, Van Meter also is concerned for herself and her colleagues who have been going above and beyond since last March.

“That is not just with in-person classes,” Van Meter told the trustees. "People have worked hard to redesign remote and hybrid courses as well.

“The concerns I'm hearing from my colleagues is those who stepped up aren't going to get the credit they deserve for that and the resources they need to sustain those efforts for the remainder of this year,” Van Meter said. “I hope that our leadership, you folks on the board, can think about ways we can support this faculty and get them the recognition and support they deserve.”

Barron acknowledged Van Meter for her insights, and “for being … so committed to doing a good job.”

Barron also said he understands the level of stress and commitment it has taken to move the University forward, and create a sense of normalcy. He thanked Van Meter as well as her colleagues for their continuing efforts in meeting the extraordinary challenges of teaching during a pandemic.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated September 21, 2020