Teaching, Interrupted

Since I decided I would work towards creating a work-optional life (to possibly retire early), I started looking at my career in teaching differently.  For the first time, my career seemed finite.

Instead of wallowing in frustration about the limitations my institution and society places on me as a teacher–which is what made me want a work-optional life in the first place–I decided I needed to act. If I believed I knew better ways to teach, I needed to put them into practice.

So I did. I started teaching some basic Non-Violent Communication skills in my classes, I created a workshop-style classroom, and I stopped focusing on whittling down student performance to a letter grade.  

It’s been a few years since I’ve put my beliefs and values into effect in my classroom and I’ve had a lot of success. I’m better able to relate to my students, they are more able to engage in real conversations with each other, and they are creating more interesting, meaningful writing. 

Even though I am happier with how I’m teaching and students more readily verbalize their appreciation for my class, I still have to work to get students connected to class. This spring it’s been harder than usual. On the first day of my English 101.01 class, 9 students had missed–out of 22. I had never had such low turnout, but I persisted.

I called and texted every one of those students who were absent day 1. A few more attended the second day of class and then a few more on the third day. I worked really hard to get them engaged, and it started working. 

Before spring break, students had connected with their pre-assigned groups, they had drafted their second papers, and most students either started showing up regularly or dropped the class. Things weren’t going perfectly, but we were on a roll.

We had briefly talked about how the Coronavirus was so causing so much destruction in China. We looked at some photos of cities in China that were eerily empty. We even talked about how a few people in New York and Washington had contracted the virus and died–so sad. We talked about what we were going to do over break and said, see you in a week!

 And then…

The Wednesday of spring break, teachers and students got notice from the college president that we were going online for the rest of the semester. 

My first response was one of grief. I really enjoyed my students. I enjoyed talking with them one-to-one, but more importantly I enjoyed seeing how they communicated with each other, how they learned together. As I started to move the classwork online, I started to picture this group of students in my afternoon class laughing together or morning group of students trickling into class late every day, checking in with me as they got settled. It was a real loss.

And it still is. Like many teachers, I’ve had a crash course in teaching online, my institution put on workshop after workshop that first week. I worried our technology education specialist would burn out.

I’ve worked to put the materials online. I have had amazing conversations with a few students over Zoom, emailed and texted with many more of them. This week is the first time I’m holding an actual “real time” class period for students who are able to attend. 

I’ve started to think of the semester as interrupted. 

In the movie Girl, Interrupted based on the book of the same name by Susanna Kaysen (whose title is referencing the Vermeer painting Girl Interrupted at Her Music), the main character Susanna’s life is abruptly changed as she is admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Her journey, though, is a bumpy one. She makes friends and learns about herself among a diverse group of patients, one of whom suicides. At the end of the film, viewers see Susanna saying goodbye to staff and being driven home. We realize Susanna’s life won’t be the same, and perhaps it’ll be better than before she went in. 

For me, this semester, I’m sure I’m growing stronger, learning more about education, learning more about myself, but not without loss. I grieve the loss of the type of relationship I had with my students this semester, and I grieve the loss students have in participating in college in the ways they intended. Perhaps life and teaching will be better after this interruption. Time will tell. 

Peace Out (and In),





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