In a recent Facebook group thread, my colleagues were reflecting on how it’s been a year since the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to do our work as teachers in totally new ways. Most of those who posted on the thread had positives things to say about learning new technologies and how it’s transformed their teaching.
This is not that story.
I feel the need to reflect on my own experience, mainly to assuage the sense of inadequacy that I feel about my pandemic response. I’ll say upfront that I do not think I am a better or stronger or more insightful teacher. I think I survived. But barely, teetering on the edge of total burnout. I kept fighting only because I knew I had this sabbatical on the horizon.
But back to the beginning.
The best thing I did at the beginning of the pandemic was to spend the majority of two whole class periods talking with my students, especially my general chemistry students, about their concerns and fears. In the moment, I was tempted to ignore the issue, to press forward with the plan our syllabus outlined, but I resisted the urge, and I’m glad of it. In those moments, I gained the trust of my students. That trust kept us going the rest of the term.
The early days of the shutdown were hard, but the adrenaline of an emergency propelled me. I made videos for my students to watch and a schedule for when to watch them. I slashed assignments and added flexibility. I wrote open-book/open-notes exams that I’m proud of, that were cheat-resistant. I held office hours every day at the same time so that both the students and my family could have that anchor of schedule but without having to remember what day of the week it was.
In those days, I got up around 5 AM so that I could get a few hours of work in before the kids woke up. Most of my videos were recorded in the darkness of spring mornings. My husband and I traded off so that we could each make progress on our goals and still keep the kids from hurting themselves. The little one had just turned one; he was dangerously mobile, getting into everything. The bigger one was three, longing for attention and control; lonely without other kids and only a baby for a brother. But it wasn’t terrible. Like everyone else, I cooked to stave off the depression. I picked tiny weeds out of the garden. I cried in the bathroom.
What I didn’t do was check on our elderly friends and neighbors. I didn’t make any masks for the hospital. I tried, but the time I had for working on masks was spent watching kids or working. I didn’t make sourdough because we were short on flour at the beginning. I rationed our supply for about two months until we could get more. (We did have toilet paper because I had bought extra when the in-laws came March 1. At that time, I remember buying extra hand soap and hand sanitizer. I forgot flour, to my chagrin.)
In summer, I felt the weight of depression as the pandemic dragged on. It took all of June to rest enough to feel happy again. July was okay as I leaned in to my role as stay-at-home mom. But the spectre of August was always there.
August. Even now, I feel a little gut wrench as I think about the coming of the fall term. The problem with the fall is that by August, the worst of the crisis felt over. My husband’s employer was basically expecting normal work. The College was expecting extraordinary work. The expectation was a hybrid/synchronous/totally flexible course, completed in double time. It was different because “we all had time to think and prepare this time.” Except–I want to scream–we didn’t all have time to think and prepare this time. I feel so angry when I think about how big the task was and how few resources I had to work with.
In my inorganic course, I had to make some hard choices because I knew I wouldn’t have time during the day to prepare. During the mornings, I helped the big one struggle through her online preschool. Then, I rolled into my office in just enough time to be physically present for my class. I put them in groups and made them talk because I knew I couldn’t be counted on to prepare anything for them. I jettisoned the Just-in-Time-Teaching pedagogy that is so integral to who I am as a professor because I knew I wouldn’t have time to answer their questions. I am ashamed of how disorganized and disconnected my lectures were. I am ashamed at how little I connected with that cohort. I couldn’t let my students get close to me because I didn’t have time or emotional energy for them. I survived, but barely. They survived, but their standardized exam scores show that they didn’t learn as much as they usually do.
The one good thing I tried was specifications grading. I switched to credit/no-credit exam questions and online exams. These saved me on grading time and made student progress really clear. I think the seed of this idea is something I will keep.
The second class, General Chemistry II was better, in part because the big one had real preschool for 4 weeks. And because much of what I used in the spring could be recycled. And because teaching general chemistry is easier than teaching inorganic chemistry. Gen chem is so much more concrete and systematic. So I survived. But there was no excellence there. And the worst part is that my students poisoned themselves. Somewhere around week 5 of 6, they decided that they were not learning anything. They gave up. And I just waited for it all to be over.
I don’t know what I’m going to do if the fall term doesn’t look something like 2019. I don’t know if I can do it again. I’m not more flexible. I’m not more organized. I’m not a better teacher for this experience. I feel like the pandemic is one of the great tests of my life, and I have failed to adapt. I am surviving but not thriving.