"... the sort of things that alter your soul."
August 9, 2021 11:26 AM   Subscribe

For many of us who teach, "Teaching during the pandemic has been an exercise in balancing the utterly mundane with the profoundly traumatic—the sort of things that alter your soul." Sarah E. Smith responds to her student evaluations. [content warning: suicide]
posted by pleasant_confusion (38 comments total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
Wow. Bring a hankie, this one is pretty gut-wrenching. And, I suppose these days, mundane in a horrible way.
posted by zenzenobia at 11:54 AM on August 9, 2021 [6 favorites]

Jesus, what teachers & nurses & parents & people have gone through this year.

"Business as usual" has to go, and only radical, universal "helping each other" will get us through this next wave, and forever after.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:20 PM on August 9, 2021 [16 favorites]

I'm in a job related to university teaching, and half of what I did last school year was just be a friend to the professors, along with my functional duties. They were all in some sort of rock and hard place situation, some more obviously difficult, but all stuck. I tried to talk with them about trauma-informed teaching, but it was too real, and too late.

This year could be ANYTHING.
posted by wellred at 12:27 PM on August 9, 2021 [8 favorites]

It's a fantastic article.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 12:38 PM on August 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

Ooof. I felt that. The visceral aversion I feel towards getting prepped for the coming semester is something I've not experienced before. That feeling of yapping to a bunch of blue squares who may or may not even be at their computers is a special kind of emptiness. Hard, joyless, work.
posted by nixxon at 1:01 PM on August 9, 2021 [7 favorites]

I read this and I felt nothing but visceral anger and anxiety. I so wanted to feel sympathy and sadness, but I can't.

I know each and every one of these stories are genuine, but they've also been incredibly weaponized and are often manipulative. We're told that the kids have to go back to school, that it's bad for the mental health of the kids, that it's isolating for all involved, that it's so hard to teach remotely.

I get all of that, and yet all of this was preventable. We just had to lock it down for a little while and it could have been over. Just a little bit of discipline combined with a collective responsibility to one another, and we just couldn't muster it, huh?

I'm almost reflexively conditioned to see a sob story about how remote teaching is bad and expect a selfish person unwilling to commit to public health measures.

I hate how this extended pandemic has slowly sapped my ability to feel sympathetic toward people in genuinely shitty situations.
posted by explosion at 1:22 PM on August 9, 2021 [23 favorites]

Today is my wife's first day back in the classroom with all of her kids. Tomorrow is my mom's. They both love teaching so much. (My mom unretired because she felt useless at home). They're excited. They're scared. They both want to be back with the kids. They're both scared of being back with the kids, but they feel anything is better than the numbness of hours of online instruction with no response.
posted by drewbage1847 at 2:21 PM on August 9, 2021 [8 favorites]

Yikes I'm pretty ice cold and dead inside and all but I couldn't read this as a "sob story" if I actively tried. At no point is there any kind of whining about masks or public health measures; it's just about how fucking hard and sad everything is. And how absurd it is for our institutions and industries to keep asking for "usual" metrics when nothing else is usual.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 3:04 PM on August 9, 2021 [38 favorites]

No just to be clear, I'm not saying this is a "sob story."

I'm saying that anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers have robbed me of the ability to feel sympathy in the same way that advertisers and viral marketers have robbed me of the ability to appreciate anything as a genuinely cool occurrence with no ulterior motive.

It sucks.
posted by explosion at 3:07 PM on August 9, 2021 [7 favorites]

We're planning the beginning of the semester in 2 weeks for the design workshop I teach to 2nd year students. Chile is kind of opened up, with low cases, high vaccination and everybody wearing masks, but we're holding our breath for Delta.

The university's bigwigs have signaled they want us to go back to in-person teaching significantly this semester.
From an academic perspective, our workshop works fine in an online format, even better than in-person, I think it's because the students are more focused as there's not much else to do than work.

But in terms of life experience, it sucks. My students don't know each other, have been to the school 1 or 2 times if at all. Don't know how to use all the cool tools the school has for them, the digital fabrication equipment, etc.

So we're gonna do an in-person kickoff which is more of an excuse to all get together at least 1 time, see each other's masks, at least. Then, we're programming 4 or 5 in-person review sessions during the semester.

The whole blank screens thing has been hard. I make students turn on their cameras at least when we're talking with them directly. I also do a thing during reviews where I ask a dumb question, like 'favorite ice cream flavor', and everybody has to answer, just to break the ice and make it feel like we're all human beings, not just screens. It mostly works, evaluations and comments mention it as making them feel more welcome.
posted by signal at 3:07 PM on August 9, 2021 [9 favorites]

Amazing. Thanks for sharing this.
posted by eirias at 3:25 PM on August 9, 2021

I need to write a letter to my child's teacher from two years ago, the teacher he had when they went home from school on a Friday and never went back, who appeared on screen in my dining room every day, talking to the kids, soothing their fears, reminding them they were safe, trying to do a little teaching in between, and every day urging them to find one way, one way to help your parents today, one way to be more independent, one way to take care of the adults in their lives, because the adults were juggling working from home and distance learning and missing child care and they were tired and stressed. She was a lifeline of normalcy and support not just for my kid but for me, eavesdropping from the next room.

I don't know how to say any of that. I barely just typed that little bit before I started crying. I thought time would make it easier, but we're still IN this Covid hell, it's still too fresh.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:27 PM on August 9, 2021 [49 favorites]


Just trying to get through the days.

About to make it through the summer course that was dumped in my lap last-minute as a brand-new prep. This fall I have another new-prep course that I had been planning to prep this summer but OH WELL that sure didn't happen.

I appreciate you, wellred, because someone should say so! I'm trying to load as little as possible onto everybody around me, while being conscious of still having to do so because otherwise the work doesn't get done.

And if I get a breakthrough infection that's symptomatic I'm hosed (because I live alone and my friends live in the computer) and my department is partly hosed (because who's gonna pick up that new course that I won't have prepped in advance?) and I'm trying not to think about it while I buy all the masks.

Anyway. Yeah. One day at a time.
posted by humbug at 3:31 PM on August 9, 2021 [14 favorites]

It turned out that I could not do another "day at a time." A couple months ago, I left the profession…after 22 years in it, during at least 18 of which I would have answered the "How long do you plan to teach?" question with "Until well after they start begging me to retire." I left despite having no plan at all for what to do instead. Still don't have one. It was still the right choice, even if I end up flippin' burgers.

I did read TFA, but I didn't have to.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 3:44 PM on August 9, 2021 [17 favorites]

I put the slides up on screen: a ventilator dilemma...
And then a microphone turned on. “We took my grandfather off the ventilator this week,” one of my students—a faceless blue square on my screen—said. “Here is how we decided to do it.”
I should have realized when I put the lesson together that the question was not theoretical. This was not a case study. This was here. This was now.

It's important for anyone teaching ethics to keep in mind that what we're teaching is never abstract. Teaching a unit on abortion? Keep in mind that some students in the room have had one. Teaching a unit on the meaning of life? Keep in mind the prevalence of depression. Even in a small classroom, every topic is going to hit someone on a personal level. Tread lightly.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:45 PM on August 9, 2021 [51 favorites]

We just had to lock it down for a little while and it could have been over.

Horseshit. Lots of places had lockdowns. Hard, debilitating, depressing withdrawals for months. It came right back as soon as they were relaxed, until the vaccines came along. Even then there were spikes.
posted by biffa at 3:48 PM on August 9, 2021 [9 favorites]

"because I live alone and my friends live in the computer"

We may be in the computer, but we're very real and we're very here for you (and everyone else, of course).
posted by Inkoate at 3:48 PM on August 9, 2021 [10 favorites]

We took my dad off the ventilator because we couldn't afford to keep him alive in a vegetative state any more. I can't imagine bringing THAT up in a damn class.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:49 PM on August 9, 2021 [20 favorites]

As always, my condolences to hearts that grieve and love and peace to those that struggle with THE WEIGHT.
posted by ob1quixote at 4:43 PM on August 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

Every kid I had a parent/teacher conference with last year reported signs and symptoms of depression. Every. Single. One.
posted by nestor_makhno at 5:06 PM on August 9, 2021 [7 favorites]

justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow, I have no doubt that this teacher is aware of that, but that what they were trying to get across is just how much all of this has removed that awareness, how having gone a year without more than a glowing screen with silent blank squares to talk to, she's losing vital parts of her connection to the world.

Zoom teaching is awful, but at least I get to see my student's faces. It's incredibly difficult to get them to speak, to interact with each other (more often than not, when I go into a breakout room that was created for a discussion, all screens and mics are off). I feel lucky if they keep their cameras on, just so that I can see a reaction. Most importantly, I can see their names and faces together.

Teaching junior high students in person, now? It's so much worse than Zoom, which, as I said, is awful. I cannot see their faces. I have students that I have been teaching for two years now that I cannot recognize. My school has officially accepted hair styles, it's a private school in Tokyo, they do that, but that means all the girls have one of three hair styles, no one can color their hair, and they are all wearing masks that cover most of their faces. I am failing a basic aspect of teaching, to let the students know that I know who they are. Without that, they cannot have any sense of how important I think they are, or how much I value their presence in class. Every time I mistake a name, it is a new canyon between that student and me, a gulf it is unlikely to be bridge, so I have largely stopped using names during in person classes. In a class of 28 students, behind masks, behind plastic shields around desks, the only students names I've learned are the students who I've had to ask, repeatedly, to stop doing negative things in the class. I ask gently, as carefully as I can, because it's no longer about a kid being "bad" or acting out. Given how much corona has affected me, the stresses, the numbness, but then the extremes of emotion when it occurs, I am amazed that these not yet fully formed children are even able to function, and try to praise the hell out of them as often as I can, but even then, I am wary of becoming that teacher who is always bringing up the things we are all trying very hard not to talk about.

Our second term starts in September. Numbers in Tokyo (the few, partial, vastly underreported) are skyrocketing, and now that Delta has become the dominant strain (something like over 70% of cases now, probably more in a week), the numbers affected by age group have started to show more and more children (people between 10-19 are making up, on average, 10% of the daily totals), I am trying to prepare myself for the possibility that we will just go ahead with in person classes, even though appointments for vaccines are almost impossible to come by, and our children won't have even had a chance to get their shots.

I feel for my students. My 1st and 2nd year junior high kids have never known school like they were supposed to be able to. The graduating seniors this year (and last year) are going through the motions of all the things they think they are supposed to do, but for suddenly unclear ends. Their last year of school, with all of the events and markers, has been erased and re-written as a blind slog to an uncertain goal, and they will graduate, like last year's kids, in an empty gym, with a camera showing their families the progress across a stage, with a masked, muffle-voiced principal calling out their name.

As ob1quixote says, the WEIGHT. Have just finally gotten our second shots yesterday, I feel as if I were able to take off the weight I'd been carrying for 18 months, only to be handed more and varied weights to carry with me out of the waiting room. And that's me, as a largely formed adult. I cannot imagine what carrying all of this weight as a child will do to my students this year, this next ten years.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:25 PM on August 9, 2021 [28 favorites]

I can't imagine teaching kids online; it's hard enough with adult learners. I've done med student lectures and small groups online for the last 18 months and I truly worry about how much is really landing. We have permission to teach the physical exam in person this year, thank goodness, because that was really impossible over Zoom.

But what worries me more is how palpably callous the students became during the pandemic. There's always a bit of that, because med school is optimized to suck the soul out of you, but this year was the worst in my 9 years in academic medicine. I'm legit worried that we're all going to be dealing with PTSD type fallout for the next decade at least.
posted by basalganglia at 5:57 PM on August 9, 2021 [13 favorites]

Jesus christ. Fuck.
posted by latkes at 6:30 PM on August 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

I am not a teacher (though this fall will be my daughter's first year teaching *gulp*), but I am willing to listen to anyone who needs to dump on Someone, Anyone Besides Their Family.

Send MeMail and I will reply with my cell phone for talk or texts. "Grim humor a speciality."
posted by wenestvedt at 7:19 PM on August 9, 2021 [15 favorites]

Jesus, basalganglia, I just can’t even with med students anymore. It’s like watching cows go off to slaughter. I mean, it was almost like that before the pandemic. Now that my colleagues are actually leaving medicine, contracting COVID, dying by suicide, overdosing, I just want to take all those fresh faced 22 year olds and tell them they’re making the biggest mistake of their lives. Yeah, everyone knows we need doctors and nurses, but there’s little hope that working conditions will improve in the rest of my professional life, pandemic or not (and I tend to think this pandemic shit may calm down for the general population, but those of us in the biz are going to be wearing full PPE, overworked, exposed to hazardous conditions and tending to the prematurely dying for years). Trying to put on an enthusiastic face for those entering the meat grinder with good intentions that haven’t been crushed yet simply prevents me from being able to teach anymore.

I finished a graduate degree during the pandemic, which ironically included a class in bioethics. Some profs are able to keep it interactive. Force the cameras on. Take polls. Have class members lead discussions. But my cohort got a chance to know each other before lockdown and we already had some professional experience to bring to the class.

My kids’ experience in public school hasn’t been all bad. Some teachers are really good at engaging. Both kids have had to become independent readers, something they skated by without doing in the before times. They’ve also had a lot more writing which has given me the opportunity to get involved. They’ll bring me their drafts and we’ll edit them together. So I appreciate being a bit more involved in their education. I am more aware of my privilege than ever during this whole thing and I can’t imagine what it’s like for a teacher trying to reach a kid who doesn’t have the same support my kids enjoy. Coming home from the hospital and finding my kids still in front of screens in the same spot I left them is depressing. Physical fitness and emotional health certainly suffer. Im sure teachers see those problems as within their scope but feel powerless to do anything about it. Their efforts are appreciated, really, even if they fall short. We have to remember what normal is.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:21 PM on August 9, 2021 [13 favorites]

A leading UK newspaper ran a story yesterday headlined that "workshy profs" were to be "forced back to the classroom". We have had endless discussions about how universities (and by implication, university teachers) are 'ripping off' students and providing 'lazy' online learning.

I think I could have dealt with this year if I hadn't also had to deal with the absolutely relentless negative coverage, seeing people i knew individually witchhunted and abused in mainstream media (usually for being 'woke' but sometimes for being 'workshy' b/c they asked for masks and protections), having both government and media statements endlessly telling us we were bad people doing a bad job and our funding was going away. If I wasn't fighting against an uncessary 25% cut to my pension. If my pay wasn't being cut for, what is it now, 12th year in a row? 15th year? I've lost track. If the VCs of Universities weren't using this opportunity to try to scare us all by firing people and closing departments and endlessly, endlessly asking for more with less, rather than, you know, standing up for us.

I was already exhausted. Yeah, so a student got cancer, another lost their mum to covid, a colleague has a terminal illness, a co-lecturer died. So what. I just don't have capacity to be angry or sad about anything anymore.
posted by AFII at 3:47 AM on August 10, 2021 [14 favorites]

This spring was slightly better than last fall, even, because--well, there was the election, and then just as my students took a break from that there was the winter storm, and half the city got to choose between risking COVID and literally freezing to death. This year I had undergrad assistant TAs and while they picked up a bunch of work for me over Zoom, they also meant that I was almost entirely separatd from student interactions outside of the pre-online lab times; then in December all of them shared an apartment over the storms and everyone caught COVID at once.

I have had to share all my tips on surviving panic attacks with so many more young adults than I ever have before. I handled enough crisis emails--as a TA, so not necessarily the obvious contact person--that I wound up writing a brief guide to using student services and releasing it on Tumblr. Who knows whether it helped anyone, but I hope so.

My partner was finishing up a nursing degree this year. You think the medical students are depressing, think about trying to teach nursing students--many of whom are already working the COVID wards as CNAs. Especially at a community college, where half the students are parents already and trying to navigate educational challenges from COVID on both ends. Some of the instructors rose to the occasion; some emphatically did not, but either way it was grim stuff.

I got a postdoc job in Minnesota and for the first time since 2012 I won't be teaching this fall. I'm pathetically grateful for the reprieve from responsibility.
posted by sciatrix at 4:52 AM on August 10, 2021 [14 favorites]

Woke up this morning feeling crappy -- not anything COVIDish, just epic heartburn -- but I have to write tomorrow's class lecture and keep going with the research coding and finish a job for my work hobby, sooooooooooo here I am. Feeling crappy, sick time coming out my ears, can't actually use it.

AFII, I feel you on the blame game. I teach in an area whose practitioners absolutely hate the professional education system and blame it loudly and profanely for pretty much everything ever. I've never gotten along well with that, and the pandemic has only intensified the opprobrium and brought it on from more corners of the world.

Like, I am trying my absolute hardest to be the teacher that students need right now. I really am. Doesn't seem like hardly anybody wants to be the support system teachers need.
posted by humbug at 7:09 AM on August 10, 2021 [5 favorites]

I taught for the last time in Spring 2020, while I was finishing my dissertation. How academic institutions responded to the pandemic wasn't the only factor in my decision to leave academia, but it was certainly on my mind.

At least then there was the awareness that, even if it wasn't exactly unforseen, it was at least unprecedented and new.

Now I can't imagine the feeling of abandonment and betrayal that my friends and colleagues in academia must still feel. Institutions - government, universities, employers - really are determined to show us how disposable we all are. They literally do not care if we live or die.

I feel so bad for people expected to teach this fall.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:30 AM on August 10, 2021 [7 favorites]

I have the amazing good fortune to be on sabbatical this fall semester, taking a break from my teaching intensive job to concentrate on research. I am fortunate because I have absolutely nothing left in my soul to give to my beloved students for whom I have moved heaven and earth the past year and a half, emailing and texting at all hours, eliminating deadlines, making tests asynchronous and open book, scraping for any points I could to allow as many to pass as possible, putting them in contact with anyone I thought could help, crying for them when they disappeared.

Two of my colleagues quit outright at the end of the semester. 5 or so retired. One is taking an unpaid leave of absence this semester, but it looks like she's probably not going to come back. Our former college president liked to remind us frequently that we are all replaceable, and of course we are, of course there are dozens of newly minted PhDs who will take those jobs (assuming the state lets us hire for full time positions and doesn't just hire adjuncts to cover their classes).
posted by hydropsyche at 2:16 PM on August 10, 2021 [6 favorites]

Meanwhile, yesterday, my colleagues returned to work in full classrooms with no mask or vaccine mandates allowed.
posted by hydropsyche at 2:17 PM on August 10, 2021 [5 favorites]

Ugh. We lasted two days in-person with masks and 100% vaccination rate among students and faculty. Back to virtual effective immediately.

Delta variant is no joke.
posted by basalganglia at 4:15 PM on August 10, 2021 [10 favorites]

Can we get a content warning re attempted suicide, please?
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:50 PM on August 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

Mod note: Sure thing, added that to the post.
posted by cortex (staff) at 3:01 PM on August 11, 2021 [2 favorites]

An Australian teacher here, who admittedly has only done about a few weeks’ worth of teaching online to high school students since the outbreak began. So I don’t have the long-term effects that many teachers from say, the US, do. Yet, here I am with a bout of depression in full tilt. My city went into full lockdown for 2 weeks, and the whiplash of having to switch completely to online teaching (using different software to last year as well, no worries I’ll just master that quickly), back to face-to-face, in mid-term, is going to have effects for a while. (Added bonus: the adjacent high school to the one with a Delta outbreak that shut the whole city down).

This week, I am tired of asking kids to put their damn masks back on, as if I needed any more behaviour issues.

The comment about the empty silence of online teaching hurts. Ironically, I’m studying postgrad online, and I’ve made sure I’m as responsive as the poor tutor needs.
posted by chronic sublime at 4:58 AM on August 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

The comment about the empty silence of online teaching hurts.

A friend who teaches a foreign language at the local community college said that the grid of screen wasn't anything she could really interact with, so she just performed without feedback for 60 or 90 minutes at a time. She said it was exhausting.

Hang in there, y'all.
posted by wenestvedt at 5:26 PM on August 12, 2021 [3 favorites]

I've been teaching online (mostly asynchronous, some synchronous) for most of a decade, and... yes, it be like that. In an in-person class there's energy exchange between me and the students -- even if it's suboptimal. A really good class and I'm practically floating.

Online it's a one-way energy transfer, me to them. From sheer necessity I've gotten good at dialing my voiceovers up to eleven and mugging for the webcam... but I don't like it. Have never liked it. Just have to do it, so I do.

At least I have the experience and knew what to expect. I am sorry as hell for folks trying to manage that energy transfer for the first time during a damn pandemic.
posted by humbug at 8:24 AM on August 13, 2021 [3 favorites]

I teach UG policy and I tend to rely on getting dialogue going in order for then to think about stuff, turn it over, etc. Online killed this, and because it killed it there, it also killed it in the classroom sessions as well. Being able to go on about stuff interminably probably stood me in good stead but its pretty draining.

Oddly enough I did a new sort of 'office hours' online session where they were pretty chatty. Normally office hours is useless and no-one shows up, but this year I set them a short piece of reading each week and got the keenos (maybe 30% of class) to come long to talk about it as well as anything they didn't understand in the notes, lectures, videos, etc. Lots of interaction and a definite gain but still no transfer of that chattiness to the lectures.
posted by biffa at 9:30 AM on August 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

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