It has now been a full two years since COVID-19 struck and my students were sent home for the Semester. For me at least, nothing in the classroom has quite been the same. Even though I am teaching fully live this semester, at a University where classes are "mask optional," I feel far less joy when teaching than I did before the Pandemic Struck.
Part of this is due to the effort it takes for me to stay healthy and motivated. Ever since I realized that my age made me vulnerable to this virus, I have been on a rigorous program of self care that involves stress reduction, healthy eating and a daily regimen of exercise and sleep. Thinking about my own body this much is, quite frankly, mentally exhausting. Making sure I am there for my students for every class and office hour, whether live or on ZOOM,requires constant vigilance.
But the major contributor to my sense of demoralization and dread is the fragility of my students. Ever since the Pandemic hit, I can never be sure which of my students will show up in class, and what condition they are in if they do. Assignments are an even greater adventure. Not only are students out with physical ailments far more than usual, a growing number are facing mental health issues that make it difficult for them to complete their written work. Over and over again, I have watched students I care about just disappear from my classes, only to get a note from the Dean saying that they had to take a leave of absence due to undisclosed health issues. And those are the extreme cases. The overwhelming sense I get from my students, both from their body language and explicit comments, is that everyone is under stress and that teachers need to be careful not to put them under too much pressure.
For me, one of the great things about teaching was getting lost in the material- bringing history to life for my students with just the right combination of stories, visual images, musical interludes and theoretical constructs, using language they had never heard before that might actually get them excited about what they were learning. But since the Pandemic, it has been difficult to get fired up with enthusiasm about what I am presenting because when I stand in front of a class, I never know who actually is going to be THERE, physically, or emotionally. Sometimes, I feel like I am going through the motions, teaching for myself, more than for a class, or more to the point, providing a model of endurance in conditions of extreme adversity. When everyone else is falling down, I want to show them, I will be the last one standing
But that is no fun. Teaching at its best is interactive, spontaneous, filled with moments of discovery for teachers as well as students. Take those elements away and what you have is an extremely complicated, stressful job, that will wear you down quickly
That is where I am at right now. I have no plans to retire, but if this keeps up for a few more years, I may have to reconsider. And the atmosphere certainly helps me understand why so many teachers are leaving the profession