Lessons learned: Giving students look ‘behind the curtain’ eased tensions


One of the simpler things Leah Helou did for her students, when Pitt first went online, was to let her 7-year-old say hello to them on Zoom — and to place as her background a picture of Hell.

“Letting people see a little bit behind the curtain has value,” says Helou, faculty member in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences’ Department of Communication Science and Disorders. “Students always tell me I’m intimidating. To see me with my 7-year-old, while I’m working from home with no childcare, it changes the dynamic pretty dramatically. I’m telling them it’s OK for them to reach out to me and tell me how I can support them. If I maintained this polished illusion,” it would leave students less comfortable coming to her with concerns, she says.

Her classes in the spring term were an undergraduate course on the neuroscience of communication and a master’s level course on voice disorders, through which she trains future speech-language pathologists and audiologists. Between class sessions, Helou regularly sent “humanizing and caring messages,” she says, to show that she shared their anxiety about the pandemic. In fact, she says, “I had more students engaging in my class once we went online,” noting that more of them felt comfortable raising their hand with comments.

It also was fruitful to appoint a student host for after-class Zoom sessions. “When students can’t sit before and after class and chat with each other, that’s a loss,” Helou says. “They told me the first time they stayed online for an hour after I left.” For the remote learning portion of the fall, “that’s the kind of thing we’re going to have to learn to give them from the beginning.”

The online atmosphere also encouraged easier participation in the voiceover competition she holds at the end of her voice disorders course, Helou says. “One challenge that I had in this class, which always surprises me: these students don’t have a lot of confidence in their voice in different ways,” although intimate knowledge of voice use will be crucial as they pursue their profession. The voiceover competition challenges students to show how much variance they can give their voices as they read aloud 20-second commercial clips.

“They said that doing it remotely … allowed them to play with it more than if we’d done it in class,” Helou says. “People sat with the task in the comfort of their own home. They took the time to explore without people listening.”

At the end of last semester, Helou co-hosted an online graduation and recognition ceremony for the master's students, soliciting faculty to speak about each individual student’s talents and accomplishments. “In that ceremony, to keep with the theme of working from home with no childcare, our keynote speaker was actually a video montage of all the faculty members’ young kids congratulating the grads and giving them life advice.

“How do we offer them an experience that really triggers that well-deserved pride?” she concluded. “We said multiple things about each student in front of their families, which I think meant a lot. I don’t know why we wouldn’t do that in the future. They don’t really get feedback from faculty about what the faculty see in them (normally). I would encourage us in the future to connect with our students always.”

This fall, she suggests giving students more opportunity for their voices to be heard, especially online: “For those of us who have been teaching at this institution for a while, I welcome the request that I refresh the way I teach,” Helou says. Any new teaching methods, discovered in the process, become “hidden treasure.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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