Providing a space for self-reflection

By Erin McKenney, MS, PhD, Assistant Professor and Director of Undergraduate Programs in Applied Ecology

It’s no surprise that folks are excited to return to normal this fall. But many of us also have lingering worries – and our students are no different. As excited as I am to get back to campus, I’m nervous about the risk of exposing my unvaccinated toddler to COVID-19. I’m also aware that I’ll have to re-learn how to navigate campus: one of my classrooms is a 12-minute walk from my office (15 if I don’t want to get sweaty), and that commute time will increase when campus is full.

Throughout the pandemic, mindfulness and personal reflection have been a critical part of my self-care. It’s been a long 20 months. I don’t know about you, but the pandemic and ongoing societal issues of racism, injustice, and inequity have absolutely ground me down.

The Office for Faculty Excellence has contributed to my personal resilience by providing virtual spaces to network and find solidarity with colleagues across campus. The reading circles inspired teaching innovation when I needed it most; the SOTL Institute facilitated my transition to education research; and the Teaching & Learning Symposium galvanized my publication efforts. But, professional development aside, participating in Mindful Mondays contributed most to my everyday sense of wellbeing. This fall, I’m interested in offering similar opportunities for my students to reflect so they can thrive as we transition back to campus.

At the NC State Teaching & Learning Symposium in 2020, I attended Mary Michaels Estrada’s presentation about the benefits of Social-Emotional Learning for students in her class on Academic Research and Writing for International Students. The following week, I began to implement check-ins in my Global Conservation Ecology class – a practice that became unexpectedly vital for navigating the educational landscape after we transitioned online in March 2020. I have continued to use check-ins for the past two semesters, both to cutivate community and because I find them to be useful for taking the “emotional temperature” of the class. In many cases, student performance on assignments and assessments correlated to their morale scores, helping me determine when to offer extensions or extra support to support students through the various challenges associated with online learning and/or the pandemic.

Looking ahead to fall 2021, I hope that by leading a mindfulness exercise before the start of each class I can provide a space for students to process their many emotions as we return to campus: grief for the traumas and losses we’ve endured, frustration with ongoing challenges, shock as we repopulate campus, relief or excitement to adapt toward a new normal. I’ve taken notes on some of my favorite elements from Mindful Mondays, which I plan to adapt for my students this fall.

On the first day of class, during the introduction and overview of course structure, I’ll dedicate a few minutes to a short mindfulness session to welcome students and help them adjust to our shared space. I’ll invite students to soften their gaze or close their eyes if they’d like, and take a moment to just sit and center themselves. “Root your feet to the floor, feel the pressure of the chair. Reacquaint yourself with this [table or desk]. Listen to your breath. Listen to the sounds of your classmates. What do you feel? Take a moment to name those feelings. Are you excited to be back? Nervous or anxious? What specifically contributes to those feelings? Maybe it’s readjusting to 3D education and life without Zoom. Maybe it’s adjusting to class schedules and walking between classes again. Take a moment to sit with those feelings, and know that you are not alone.” After speaking through these prompts, I’ll play some music and invite students to check-in on the whiteboard a la Mary Michaels Estrada.

For all subsequent classes, I’ll lead the mindfulness session 5-7 minutes before the start of class so that students can opt in or out without losing instructional time. As the semester progresses, I’ll shift focus from emotional experiences surrounding the pandemic and coming back to campus, toward individual mindfulness1. (Cultivate calm, then sustain it.) I’ll incorporate breathing exercises, chair twists, and – if there’s space – windmills and squats2. To complement our pre-class sessions, I’ll create a mindfulness Padlet discussion board where students can build community by sharing their thoughts and concerns throughout the semester. Together, I hope these optional mindfulness practices will enable us to focus and reflect on whatever is most pressing for them on any given day, to build awareness and resilience across the semester that will benefit students beyond my class.

1This of course depends how the pandemic progresses, now that the delta variant is on the rise…
2I’m also a fan of facial massage and fire breath; but I’m foregoing those practices to minimize risk of COVID transmission.