On Thursday, my students and I were chatting before class as I prompted them to respond to the Poll Everywhere word cloud: “Finish the sentence: I spent my Spring Break ______________.” Soon, words began to populate the screen: “Sleeping, family, Disneyland, beach, Six Flags, Universal…” While the dominant responses were sleeping and relaxing, most responses were a flashback to pre-pandemic life. Where the familiarity and unfamiliarity join quickly left its impression upon me; aloud, I jovially remarked, “Wow! Look at that. It’s looking like things are returning to life as we knew it. It certainly feels like we’ve all been dealing with a proverbial psychological hangover from the past two years. I think this year, we just held our breath, hoping to make it through break without anything crazy happening. So far so good! Knock on wood!” as I knocked loudly on the top of the desk. A student, smiling while raising her eyebrows, pointed and looked at me as if to say, “You better find some wood to knock!” This, as they return from break with a “masks encouraged” policy, and me, relieved to see their smiles, yet feeling like I don’t recognize them without their masks on. It’s such an odd in-between space.
Returning to the classroom in-person this Spring felt like an alternate reality. Do I pass out handouts? Can students work in groups? Can they walk around? Do I have to clean everything in the classroom every time? What if I forget something? What if I mess up? For my students, I noticed how eager they were to TALK to each other. When they discuss in class, the energy is palatable; I honor the space for them to have it. This anecdote may sum it up best: last week, I checked out about ten books from the library to cart to Banned Books and Censorship, offering resources for students to use on their projects. The books were heavy and uncomfortable to lug across campus. I even required special permission to check out so many, but I did it because I thought that’s what my students needed. When class started, I was proud (and I’m a bibliophile) to show them how many resources are available to them in our amazing library, lifting up each book, explaining its contents, and pointing to where the information may be applicable to them. Afterwards, students met to plan projects. The books sat there; students didn’t go to the books, look at them, or give them any attention. Confused, I thought, well, maybe I should take the books TO the students. When I enthusiastically said to one group, “Oh, The Handmaid’s Tale is in here, look, a Summary and Background of Censorship!”
My student responded, casually, “Cool. Can’t I get that electronically, though?”
It took me a second to adjust, and I said, “Yes! I think so. Let’s look.”
We did. She could, a juxtaposition of “let us talk to each other, and let us use our tech.”
We all know the effects of the pandemic have forced us to evolve as teachers, as humans. In fact, TYCA (Two Year College Association of National Council of Teachers of English) created a taskforce to study the impact of 2020 on instructors. In crafting the survey, our questions began to sort itself into categories to include: instructional modalities, cognitive/emotional/self-care, impact to workload, institutional support, and teaching. We are just beginning the literature review and hope to start collecting responses in Fall 2022. Overall, collectively, I don’t think we’ve processed the impact 2020 had on us. We may still be running on the adrenaline it took to get us through to the other side.
My work has changed because my life has changed. I have changed. The logistics, of course, are the easiest to talk about. In a forced instant, we learned how to live in a world of Zoom and Google Meet and WebEx and Live Online and HyFlex and work from home and vaccines and masks and sanitizing and social distancing and how many times we could tolerate hearing the word “unprecedented.” My dining room table turned into my office space and my classroom. Now, instead of a centerpiece and placemats, it’s filled with two monitors, a ring light, my laptop, and a wireless keyboard and mouse. Underneath all the vocabulary, though, I think we also learned to be even more patient (like the judge when the lawyer was a cat: “Sir, I’m not a cat.”), flexible (“Anyone need an extension?”), compassionate (“I am so sorry to hear that you are sick. Please take care of yourself.”), and expert with referrals (“Find free Wi-Fi here. Drive-Thru Food Distribution here. Counseling here.”) I learned we can do hard things (like having to work while home-schooling a kindergartener, a sixth grader with ASD, and a sophomore…Ay!). Though I will never stop learning, and I could likely talk about it a long while, these are some of the lessons I’ve learned from living and teaching in a pandemic.