Aquinas Students Grateful for Lessons during Fall Semester of In-Person Learning
By Sister Mary Grace Watson, O.P.
One year ago, we all probably would have been very confused to read this headline. In an era of increasing online learning, particularly in higher education, in-person learning would not attract any attention worthy of news, even e-news. However with the COVID pandemic, a completed semester of class on campus merits some attention.
Throughout the summer, Aquinas administrators carefully prepared plans and protocols for a safe return to campus, complete with facemasks, daily health forms, and social distancing. Orientation meetings for all faculty and staff included explanations of the protocols, with the hope that the Aquinas community could remain on campus throughout the semester.
With the COVID pandemic, a completed semester of class on campus merits some attention.
Now as students approach final exams, they reflect on their experiences during the 2020 Spring and Fall semesters. The most important lessons learned this semester seem to be universal and profound, transcending Russian History, Educational Psychology, and the Nature of Math.
Sister Rosaria O.P., ’22, an education student, shared this: “Experiencing the stark contrast between remote and in-person learning helped me see that school is not just about learning or teaching the content. School is a community of persons, not a list of facts to master,” she said. “When I become a classroom teacher, I want to prepare a place where students can enter into and build a community, where each person is received as an indispensable gift.”
Sister Maria Lucia, O.P., ‘21, also a candidate for the Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies, agreed. “Learning from my professors in person with all of their vibrancy and love for their area of expertise simply cannot be replaced by Zoom. Spending time with other students, learning from each other, and being reminded of the gift that the other person is has resurfaced as the essential work of our time,” Sister said. “This time of pandemic has been richly blessed, allowing us to become creative with technology to remain connected, while also allowing me to see what God our loving Father has created us for—communion.”
Sister Lydia Marie, O.P., ‘21 expressed gratitude for her professors and the efforts they have made during both semesters: “My professors did such an incredible job of adapting to the situation but I realized I missed just walking in the hallway together or the before-and-after-class chat that usually happens. There is something so refreshing about being with others especially when learning something new.” Sister Lydia Marie is a graduate student in elementary education at Aquinas.
Our students in the School of Education had the additional experience of seeing how virtual education affects elementary and secondary students. Teachers throughout Tennessee welcomed our teacher candidates to observe and teach virtually in their classrooms. Thanks to the example of these dedicated educators, our students’ learning went beyond how to host a Zoom session.
Sr. Clare Dominic, O.P., ‘22 reflects, “I think the witness of my professors and the teachers I have observed during the pandemic has affected me deeply. They are truly committed to teaching their students, going not just the extra mile but the extra ten miles! As a teacher, I will be challenged by the example of the heroic teachers I have seen. I will ask myself, am I really doing all that I can to serve my students’ needs?”
Aquinas teacher candidates were also able to offer classroom support as teachers grappled with the extra challenges of teaching in a “mixed classroom” – an environment with remote and in-person learners learning together. Aquinas teacher candidates were happy to provide extra assistance to online students while the teacher taught those present in the classroom.
Sister Clare Dominic explained, “In the host classroom, the teacher and most of the class were learning in-person, but four students were remote learners on Zoom. During one lesson I was able to support the online learners in a special way . . . Because I was online like them, I was able to work with these students the whole time . . . and attended to them when they needed help during group work. I felt that giving students little acts of love and attention gave them a little relief from their frustrations and helped them feel encouraged and loved as truly part of the school community.”
Community. Dedication. Presence. These seem to universally top the list of the most important lessons learned this semester. Sister Lydia Marie shared how she believes the experience of COVID-19 will affect her own teaching in the future. “I hope that I will never allow a person to pass by me without acknowledging their presence ever again. I have learned just how important eye contact is and how much you can tell about how someone is doing based on how they look at you. I want to look each of my students in the eyes every single day and affirm their goodness.”
Sister Mary Grace Watson, O.P. is dean of the Aquinas College School of Education.