TEACHING IN THE PANDEMIC CLASSROOM
Yes, the pandemic has greatly affected my teaching.
I get to know my students in and out of the classroom. Professional Writing requires writing from the heart and from experience, so many of my students end up getting personal in their writing. I get to know them from their choice of words, from their past acts, from their hopes and their dreams.
I also get to know them from their faces. I take note of their expressions and learn when they’re lost, when they understand, when they agree, and when they disagree. Writing is personal. Words must have meaning and emotional complexity. Writing requires an author to “wear a face and a heart” when putting words on a page. Writers must be able to connect with readers.
Teachers have to be able to connect with students.
By paying attention to my students, I can better serve their needs and their educational process. I read their faces and their body language. I pick up unspoken comments and questions through micro-expressions and posture. Over the years of learning to deal with people, I’ve become intuitive about students in my classrooms. I can tell when they’re happy, when they’re distressed, and when they’re just coasting. I’m not always right, but I’m pretty good.
The masks have taken much of that away.
I have no idea what most of the new students last semester look like. That lack makes it harder to get to know them. I pride myself on learning every student’s name that first day of class. I have them introduce themselves briefly, and I file every name with some bit of personal history that is unique will help me remember them. Doesn’t matter if they’re extroverted students or introverted students.
I get to know their names. Names are important. I don’t think more than two or three of my professors knew who I was when I went through undergrad.
Last semester was more difficult for me as a teacher. When you’re given only eyes and ears to recognize a student (and sometimes not even the ears because of hair styles and headgear), you’re operating at a deficit. Sure, there’s hair color, but that can change during a semester as much as hair style and hair length and headgear, and sometimes color is not so different. On that first day in my Intro class last semester, I got 21 out of 22 students’ names right. True, the missing name was outside the usual wheelhouse, but I shouldn’t have missed it. I had all the names by the second day of class, but my ability to match up the names to the students through memory proved difficult.
I taught a Horror class last semester with Dr. Ralph Beliveau. Most of the students were new to me. Halfway through the semester, we went to Zoom. I don’t think I ever got to know those students as well as I would have had things remained the same.
Zoom was horrible for me. I’m ADHD, so slight movements across a monitor filled with a couple dozen windows distracted me. Movement draws my immediate attention. Movement in a classroom blends and I can pick it up easily. Isolated windows of moving students break into my conscious mind and interrupts word flow and stacked thoughts. It’s like constantly hitting speed bumps.
Once, in my Intro class last semester, one of the students took her mask off briefly when only a handful of students were in the class. She’d brought in a cup of coffee and finished it before class started.
However, when the student removed her mask, she looked so much different than I had imagined. I hadn’t tried to guess what she looked like—at least, not consciously, I don’t think. I didn’t try to guess what any of them looked like. I was busy memorizing eyes, ears, and posture.
I don’t think I would have known her without her mask if we’d passed in the hall.
I also must wear a mask. The students don’t get to know me. They can’t read my facial expressions. I care about them. They see it in my face—when I don’t have a mask. Now they don’t have that resource. I think there’s a gulf between us that generally doesn’t exist. Maybe that’s only because I’m so conscious of the mask.
One of my students, whom I had in a previous class, told me other students in that class of new people wondered what I looked like—after I’d done a first-day presentation about myself, the books I’ve written, and my garden, which I enjoy. I only put in an image or two in the whole presentation, so I guess the visual didn’t stick. Probably because of first-day jitters, or possibly because it was 9:30 in the morning and the students weren’t used to being awake at that hour.
The student who knew me sent a picture of me around through GroupMe. He told me that some of the students were surprised by how I looked. Maybe it was because the picture was in a different location, or maybe because I’d grown a COVID beard. Either way, what they saw didn’t match up with what they had imagined.
I teach with humor and wordplay. I teach with expression and I teach with a deadpan expression that demands the students pay attention to what I’m saying and what I look like at the time I say it.
Wearing the mask, I don’t have a face. I don’t have some of my best abilities to relate to students. As individuals, we often depend on nonverbal responses to deepen our relationships and get to know each other “at a glance.”
When I teach, I use my voice as an instrument and an interface. I raise and lower my voice. I speed my words up and I slow them down. I use cadence and pauses and emphasis and decibel levels. Some of that is muffled by the mask, I don’t know how much because I’m not listening to myself. I’m studying eyes, ears, and body posture to make sure I’m not losing any of those students.
Wearing the mask, I don’t have my proper voice. I lose some of the gradations in tone, insinuations, and vocal pitch when I present material.
My ability to interact with my students outside of the classroom has been impacted by the need for social distancing. Anyone who knows me knows I keep an open office. Students are welcome to schedule appointments or drop by. I keep Pop-Tarts, candy, gum, and Ring-Pops on shelves my wife got me that are expressly for that purpose. The students come in and help themselves, even if it’s only to grab something and take to class. They always acknowledge me, and I always acknowledge them—even if it’s only a grab-and-go. Social barriers aren’t there keeping us apart. My desk is even set up backward in that office so that it feels like a living room when we talk one-on-one or in groups. The desk is not a wall between us, and I like that. The students do as well.
So far, that room has held at most one time a maximum of seven students and me. They sat on the chairs I “procured,” they sat on my desk, and they sat on the floor. None of us ever forget I’m the teacher in the class. Chain of command exists. But they have access to me for guidance, a kind word, a bit of hope in a dreary day, and Pop-Tarts. I get the same thing from them. Minus the Pop-Tarts. But they have brought cookies and muffins by to show appreciation.
I miss that camaraderie. I raised five kids of my own. I had four younger brothers. I married into a large family. I’m used to big family gatherings—mostly, I’m still an introvert at heart. Having to deal with so many people can drive you insane and keep you centered all at the same time.
The need for social distancing, a truly necessary thing, has also impacted the way I teach in the classroom and outside of it. The students and I are close, but that closeness doesn’t involve proximity as much these days.
Then there’s the matter of the fear.
When I go into the classroom, I’m afraid. I’d be stupid not to be. This disease hits hard when it hits. We’ve all seen the numbers climb and escalate. Despite the vaccinations out there in the general populace at the moment, COVID-19 isn’t going away quickly.
Or, at least, not quickly enough.
I have diabetes, asthma, and just turned 63. My doctor wasn’t happy to learn I’m teaching in-person classes. I’m not either. I’m in the classroom by choice, but there’s a lot of trepidation on my part. Doctors say that wearing the mask and keeping a proper social distance will enhance my chances of not getting COVID-19. I gamble every day I’m there that those things are true and that they continue to shade the odds in my favor, but it’s a roll of the dice every class.
Luck runs out at some point. It always does.
I have students who must sit out with the disease. They’ve caught it somewhere, and there’s a chance they’ve brought it into the classroom before they knew they had it, while they were infectious. I never forget that.
I’m afraid and I suck it up and be careful and do the job I think those students need. I’m trusting the powers-that-be that I won’t die, that the students won’t die, and that none of us will take that sickness home to our families.
However, fear remains within me, and I know it resides in them. Some days, after an uptick in the daily numbers, you can feel mortality brush up against students in the classroom. One of my students lost a family member last semester to COVID-19. We all mourned, and we were reminded how quickly the pandemic can take you.
This sickness, these deaths, they touch us all. This pandemic leaves a mark. I worry that the mark is indelible, that maybe we’ll get through COVID-19 but never be the same as we were. I don’t know that I will ever shake hands again. I won’t ever get hugged by a student and not worry, but sometimes a student needs to hug, just to be reminded that he or she is not alone. Especially if that student is away from his or her family.
We do what we must do, and we hope we make our world better for it. However, things have changed, and teaching has gotten harder. At least from my perspective.