Learning to teach virtually: Resilience, understanding, and appreciation in a time of chaos

Taking stock of what is working effectively and why

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The Corona virus is affecting all aspects of lives across the globe. From the choices we make, to our daily routines, no person has been left unaffected. On top of the already chaotic reality of being academics in one of our nation’s leading allied health universities we are now working to maintain the educational rigor our teaching demands to educate future healthcare providers in the midst of this global healthcare crisis.  As faculty at Rush University in Chicago, we are actively learning to navigate these extreme times while continuing to provide high caliber educational experiences to our occupational therapy students. Couple this with worry for our neighbors’ and family’s health, and our communities’ potential financial predicament, the emotional toil is beyond what anyone could have imagined. The chaos of COVID-19 has undeniably pulled the rug of normalcy from underneath us.

The nation’s colleges and universities have faced seemingly endless difficult choices – to closing campuses, cancelling unique educational opportunities, post-pone celebrations, and even cancelling commencement ceremonies. When Rush University announced its cancellations, we were heartbroken for our students who – after committing roughly five thousand hours across three years of study to their chosen fields of study – were in their final weeks of their educational careers and looking forward to starting their professional careers after graduating in April. Inevitably, frustration and sadness have pervaded students’ and faculty’s lives alike; however,  thanks to prompt and clear guidance from college and university administrators, as well as our quiet leaders, students and faculty feel more supported now than ever before. Celebrations are secondary for the moment. Our goal now is to continue to effectively teach but also survive so someday careers can begin and blossom and families can come together to celebrate postponed but non-the-less commemorate life achievements.

To achieve both of these goals we know we must work together – something that is not new to the community of occupational therapists across the world and not new for the Rush University community.

We believe it is critical for us to: 1) Recognize/take stock of what is working effectively and why and 2) To share our successes and lessons learned with other universities and occupational therapy programs and to contribute to a stronger, smarter future/tomorrow.

At Rush, we quickly identified the need to function as a unit, faculty and students, working as a team to creatively transition every component of our well-established classroom and experiential learning program to a completely virtual experience, all while facing new and unexpected challenges with each new day. No one questioned the need for this transition, and faculty are pulling together to ensure the most optional learning possible for our students.

Faculty has rapidly learned how to transfer lectures to online format and are learning to use unfamiliar virtual meeting and education platforms such as Zoom, Go-to-Meetings, Examity, etc. We encourage students to provide us with feedback, and they are doing so quickly and constructively; this student-faculty interaction is mutually beneficial and has resulted in a considerably efficient and effective transition from an all in-person to fully online educational program. Additionally, faculty is addressing the trials of how to deliver laboratory class sessions remotely. These numerous and significant changes are happening all while ensuring the program is meeting university and specialty accreditation standards.  Our faculty is working day and night to complete this transition, with the common goal to provide our students with the best learning experience possible. 

One of the greatest challenges we face in this new, virtual environment, is addressing the required clinical experiences associated with our curricula. Unique to clinical degree programs such as occupational therapy, nursing, and medicine, are the clinical rotations required to demonstrate a student’s entry-level practice competence.  At this time of year, many students are in the last weeks of their practical or doctoral experiences, in which they engage in advanced skill development, as well as increasing their leadership and advocacy skills.  Accrediting bodies have strict guidelines regarding the timeframe for these clinical rotations. Out of abundance of concern for our students and the patients they serve, Rush University has suspended all clinical experiences in order to keep patients, staff and students as safe and health as possible.  The entire academic body of our institution is currently working around the clock to develop alternative experiences that would allow students to continue to progress in their respective programs and thus graduate on time. We have made it a priority to avoid delaying a new wave of healthcare providers in the fight against COVID-19 and the inevitable growing spread of other invisible enemies.

Our fieldwork and capstone coordinators are in communication with site mentors where students were currently working to determine if there are options for project completion. The response has been overwhelming – clinical sites are collaborating with us and our students, offering exciting and flexible opportunities to continue student experiences in creative ways, such as through virtual patient visits, the development of patient and staff educational materials, or translating in-person care to easy-to-follow self-care manuals. The cooperation and support from these sites are a crucial part of what is working well within our program, as they go above and beyond what is expected of them. For this, Rush and our department is eternally grateful.

What else is getting us through this period of constant change? Faculty is maintaining daily contact and together exploring ways to address our emotional needs. We accomplish this through formal meetings using Zoom to sharing impromptu jokes over group texts. Each of us is also reaching out to students on a regular basis. We keep them posted on what is happening at Rush and within the program, we offer assurance that we are working hard for them to keep them on track for graduation, and importantly, we are reaching out because we care. We check-in on them to ask how they are doing in this time of significant uncertainty and fear. However, even this can be a challenge at times, as things are constantly changing and oftentimes the “Send” button on the email has just been hit and the information in that email is already outdated. 

Throughout this time of change, the response from the students is unprecedented.  With each new email, even when it is “bad news,” we receive numerous emails expressing gratitude.  The students appreciate the faculty’s transparency and effort they put forth.  One student even wrote, “I have never felt so taken care of by faculty.”  Our hearts hurt for these students, knowing that their educational experience has been tremendously disrupted. But our hearts soar, seeing the resilience, understanding, and appreciation they are expressing during this difficult time.

A final factor we attribute to weathering this storm is individual efforts in creatively finding ways to reach out and help the communities with which we have long standing service relationships. Serving the communities our institutions resides within is a commitment woven throughout Rush University’s mission and vision. Attending to these communities is as important to us as attending to our families and our students. While these experiences are focused on helping others they are also powerful forms of self-care. 

Examples of some of our outreach activities include attending to people’s spiritual needs through virtual worship opportunities and working with other universities to help people with disabilities and the older adult population. We have also shared and advocated for legislation that will help families and individuals who are experiencing increased hardship, as well as legislation that can expand the possibilities of providing services such as telehealth to patients in self-isolation.

As we reflect on this time we are grateful to work with such phenomenal faculty and students across our institution.  The leadership within the college and the university are working hard to ensure that the needs and well-being of the students, faculty, and all staff are being met.  We are learning how to best continue teaching our students, and in the process, we are learning the critical importance of social connectedness in the wake of social distancing. We are thankful for the boldness of the health care workers and scientists, not only at Rush, but around the world.

Laura VanPuymbrouck, PhD, OTR/L, is an Assistant Professor in the College of Health Sciences at Rush University in the Department of Occupational Therapy. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.

Linda Olson, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA is the Chairperson of the Department of Occupational Therapy, College of Health Sciences, Rush University, Chicago. 

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