I Love My College Students But I'm Terrified To Go Back To My College Classroom
I am a college professor at a state school where almost 30% of the population are first-generation college students, just as I was. I never returned to my office after spring break because we began emergency remote learning—very different than distance learning—to protect the lives of our students and families. Not even my succulents could possibly still be alive on my windowsill. And I am really hoping I hadn’t left any half and half in my tiny fridge.
I have earned tenure and last year was promoted to Professor, so I enjoy a level of security and privilege not shared by the majority of my colleagues. I missed my students, but I also hadn’t gotten to know them all that well yet so I know I failed in connecting more with them.
My husband is a high school physics teacher in a wealthy suburban school outside of Philadelphia. Overnight he had to learn how to make a lab science engaging for students, mostly seniors dismayed at having their proms and graduations taken away, on technology he had barely encountered before. Having taught for 25 years, it had been a long time since he needed to stay up until the wee hours to be prepared for a lesson. For the last six weeks of the year, he went straight to our home office after putting our daughter to bed and worked until 3 a.m. while the rest of the house—including our dog—slept soundly. His frustration of not being able to connect with students brought him to tears.
We both cried a few times during those weeks. We both did what we could as professionals to be the adults in the room even though we were equally terrified, heartbroken, and confused.
Our daughter is a rising fourth grader at a small Quaker school that went to emergency remote learning at the same time as her parents’ schools. She struggles to read and was finally making good progress thanks to the many teachers who had been building momentum all year and were finally seeing the fruits of their labor. She is an only child, much loved and also very lonely. Her teacher had to watch from afar as her student’s light shone a little dimmer over a Zoom screen and we as parents did all we could to stave off a downslide in her education and mental health.
And our household is the best-case scenario: two educators that can help their child, two people with secure degrees and salaries that allow us to buy whatever we need to support our one child’s education (thank you to the delivery workers that delivered a ream of computer paper to our doorstep!), a big enough house that we could all find a place to be alone during teaching and learning, a fast enough Internet connection that two of us (but definitely not three) could be on Zoom at the same time, a yard that gave us space to breathe fresh air and plant seeds for the tomatoes we are now eating, a sweet dog that sits at my feet while I teach and attended his first Quaker meeting via Zoom, and, most importantly, an extended family that is healthy.
Our household is best-case scenario and we barely survived until June.
Here we are now at midsummer. The coming of August has always been a complicated mix of emotions for us as teachers: in a “normal” year, by August the decompression would have finally alleviated the tension of the pressure cooker of the school year, our bodies would be tanner from enjoying the local pools, our hearts fuller from spending time with friends we don’t get to see as much as we would like during the hectic school year. But we would also start to be on each other’s nerves, all three of us lacking the focus of a school day, me personally missing the adrenaline of being in a classroom and being of service to students.
Here we are now at midsummer in 2020: all three of us have no idea what our professional and personal lives will look like. My newsfeed is filled with memes demanding that Betsy DeVos be forced to spend a week in a classroom, just as Erin Brockovich taunted those with the power to drink the water from the wells the powerful were trying to convince a community was safe.
Every day someone texts me and asks with nothing but good intentions, “do you know anything about the fall?” because parents are scrambling to understand what their lives look like so they can plan their own professions. On a weekly basis I get an email from an entity at my university that explains some facet of campus life and I end up more confused and knowing less than I did about the fall than I did before I got the email. My husband and I sit outside while we let our daughter watch something about Roblox (I should get an Oscar for my performances: The award for “Best Mother Pretending to Care About Roblox” goes to Colleen Clemens! I also now have a PhD in Animal Crossing) for the eighth hour in the long day that would normally contain camp and playdates and pools so he and I can talk about scenarios (as of yet, he has no idea what the school year will look like, but he sure has completed a lot of surveys on the matter).
Households with children being educated and with parents who are educators are spinning. Our heads are storms of conflicting personal and professional desires. I do not want to be in a classroom with college students. I am old enough to know that they will not live by any contract they sign because they are children who have no malice toward those around them but who also want to taste their first sips of freedom. I am also old enough to die from COVID. I watch with envy as schools announce what feels to be the only sane response to science and go to remote learning for the fall. I also know that if that is to happen, some of my colleagues may lose their jobs due to lower enrollment. I know that my at-risk students may not return to college if we are remote in the fall and my heart breaks for them while I simultaneously imagine the relief of not having to worry about my own health.
We want our daughter to go back to school. We know that she is suffering academically and emotionally even though we continue to exploit our privilege and pay tutors and buy online art lessons. We know science dictates that we could not see our extended family once good weather’s departure disallows our outside, socially distant visits. We want our daughter to see her friends. We know that seeing other people means that we are at the mercy of their decisions and lives. We need her to go back to school so the educators in this house can educate again, can give our fullest attention to the students who need our support and care. We worry the elementary educators are also afraid. We worry that our wishes put the lives of fellow educators are risk. We worry, worry, worry.
I began writing this essay at 4:45 a.m. because while my husband finds his quiet and focus late into the night, I find it at the beginning of the day. Every morning—I am teaching and mentoring over the summer as I always do—I work frantically to grade essays, plan lessons, reply to email and today, I decided to do something for myself and write this piece, though writing it will create an avalanche of work that I will have to try to do while parenting and running a household. Every morning when I hear my daughter rouse, my first emotion is anxiety—When will I get the rest of this done! Students need feedback! This graduation clearance needs to be completed! What on earth am I teaching later this morning! I do not want to feel anxious when my daughter wakes up—it makes me feel like an awful mother (so many good essays have been written about mothering during the pandemic and I can only assume those women sacrificed a night of sleep to get those written) but by the time she comes down the stairs, I have closed my computer and am smiling to see her. For now it is still summer and I have no answers for her, my students, or even for myself. I say “good morning” and hope that the statement is true.