Chris Cooney’s dining room became his office. (Photos courtesy of the Cooney family)

Having College Kids at Home Helps Faculty Empathize with Students’ COVID-19 Experience

By Becky Kramer

Chris Cooney with his wife, Rebecca simultaneously working on their computers
Chris Cooney with his wife, Rebecca.

As Chris Cooney and Garth Mader switched to remote teaching last semester, both Carson College faculty members had college-age children move back home.

Having young adults under their roofs during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic was revealing. The faculty members and their families confronted many of the issues their students faced.

“Students would say, ‘Yeah, this is really tough. I don’t have enough privacy, I’m having internet connectively issues, and I can hear everything that’s going on in the house,’” says Cooney, who has four children with his wife, Rebecca. “Our family gets along really well, but we had experiences that mirrored that.”

In the Mader household, Garth and his wife, Christina, had two college-age students and one working young adult at home during COVID-19. In addition to making online classes engaging for students, Mader knew empathy would be crucial to finishing out the spring semester.

“It was important to listen to the students’ stories about the difficulties they were facing outside of class,” Mader says. “I wanted to be real and open about the time we are in, and I wanted to give them opportunities to share.”

Their students stayed motivated and connected during COVID-19, with strong attendance and class participation. In upper level classes, student teams also did some stellar project work, Cooney says.

Quiet, please. Zoom class in session

The Cooneys are both WSU faculty members—Rebecca teaches in the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication.

The couple has two sons in high school, Eli and Zakary. COVID-19 brought their daughter, Sawyer Moss, home from Bellingham, where she was a sophomore at Western Washington University. Their oldest son, Jakob, finished the semester in Seattle after spending spring break at home.

Chris Cooney cracks a joke to daughter Sawyer Moss
Sawyer Moss was the sidekick during “dad jokes.”

With most of the family working and studying under one roof, everyone had to adapt. The dining room in the Cooneys’ century-old craftsman house became an office. Family members ate meals on TV trays in the living room and took turns with cooking and cleanup. They also observed quiet zones in the house.

“We had what we called Studio A (the dining room) and Studio B (the bedroom),” Cooney says. “When one of us was teaching, we put up a sign that said ‘Quiet, please. Zoom class in session.’”

Despite the cooperation, calls of “Hey, I’m in class,” occasionally rang out from Sawyer when other family members’ discussion got boisterous.

“Stay Home, Stay Healthy” orders produced some wonderful family times, Cooney says. But he and Rebecca also noticed their kids struggling with the isolation from their peers. In class, his students talked about the strangeness of being back at home and studying in their childhood bedrooms.

Since most of the students in his Business Administration 100 class were freshmen, Cooney began telling a “dad joke” at the beginning of class.

“They were groaners,” he says—corny, G-rated jokes like the ones his own dad used to tell. To increase the comedic appeal, Sawyer appeared as his sidekick. Cooney’s teaching assistants took turns telling dad jokes, and he also accepted student submissions for jokes.

The jokes were “part of our need for comfort and normalcy,” he says. They added levity to class, while acknowledging that both students and their parents were making adjustments.

Sharing in a safe environment

Mader says he got to know students in different ways during COVID-19. Pets and family members appeared in the background on Zoom classes with students. One student’s toddler niece sat through class with him—he was her caregiver when other family members were working.

Mader dedicated a few minutes of each class to checking in with students. When he asked how they were doing, stories came tumbling out. Students talked about having job offers or internships rescinded, family members being out of work, and fears of getting the coronavirus.

Garth and Christina Mader (center), with daughters Chandler, Kylie, and Bryn. (Courtesy Mader family)

“Some of them had technical difficulties, and I had some bandwidth issues as well,” Mader says. “I think they appreciated seeing I was struggling along with them.”

Zoom’s chat feature allowed students to express their thoughts without talking over each other.

“The ability to share in a safe environment brought us together,” Mader says.

Lessons from online learning

Both Mader and Cooney learned things last semester they’ll continue to use in their teaching.

While extroverts seem to have an advantage in face-to-face classes, Mader noticed that quieter students participated more frequently during Zoom classes.

“In a Zoom environment, we can see a digital show of hands,” he says. “It’s easier to track who raised their hand in what order and honor their request to speak.” He’ll continue to encourage quieter students to speak up.

Mader also plans to pre-record more lectures for students to listen to before class, so they can use the face-to-face time for discussion and other activities.

Online classes are part of Cooney’s regular teaching load. This semester taught him things about connecting with students he’ll continue to use in Global Campus online classes.

“That need for connection was really important,” he says. “People were really interested in having other people to talk to during this time.”