Two weeks until the end of the hardest semester of my thirteen year teaching career. Yep, even harder than that semester when we had to shift suddenly to fully remote teaching in Spring 2020. This semester has sort of been like those scenes in films with the trick lens where someone is sprinting down a hallway – but the door at the end never gets any closer. (Wasn’t Thanksgiving just a couple days ago? But also, why isn’t it New Years yet?)
These last two weeks will be filled with grading a final round of papers and exams of the students who have somehow managed to hang on fifteen weeks so far (by an instructor, me, who is shocked that she is still managing to hang on after fifteen weeks). Unlike every other of the thirty-five Fall, Spring, and Summer semesters I have taught, the bulk of my energy this semester has been spent tracking down students and their work – begging them to just turn something in – giving third, fourth, and fifth ‘second chances’ in the hopes that they would take the feedback in this time and make the needed changes in order for me to accept their papers – and when they don’t, requiring that they meet with me via Zoom to talk about it (they sure love that).
These students are not lazy. They are not unskilled writers. They are just tired. Burned out after a year and a half of this pandemic. And no, I’m not blowing this out of proportion (as I’ve been told by some non-academic folks in my life). This semester has been different from all the ones that came before it.
During a (previously considered) “normal” semester, I might have two, maybe three, students who neglected to turn in a paper. I’d send off a couple emails, receive an apology, and we’d all move on. This semester, for the second round of papers in my Composition I course (of which I have two sections), twenty-two students neglected to turn in their papers. Despite my best effort*, I was not able to recover all of them. (*Though, to be fair, I didn’t show up on their doorstep.)
Over the course of a semester, it’s also not uncommon for a student or two to drop or disappear around midterm. This year? I lost thirteen between the three sections of comp I/II that I have. I’ve lost a total of seven out of my humanities class, and even a couple from my creative writing course – a first in all my years of teaching.
I worry for these students. I worry for the ones who are still here and somehow managing to do A-level work despite everything else going on in their lives and in the world. I worry for my colleagues, who were all running on empty before this Fall semester even began. We’ve given everything – and it’s just not enough anymore. I worry for the new teachers who spent years studying and fantasizing about what it would be like to finally stand up in front of a classroom – only to find themselves in the absolute chaos of remote teaching – or in-person teaching where the bulk of the time is spent reminding students to pull their masks up and sit still – or, even worse, the combination of teaching remote and in-person at the same exact time. So many of these bright new talents are fleeing the profession after only a year. And I don’t blame them.
I wish I had a solution to end with. But I’ve got nothing left. I hate that every Wednesday in my writing group I state my goal to simply “survive” the following week – but that’s my reality. I need time to walk away – to shut the door on my home office for a bit and not worry about all these students who keep disappearing and colleagues who are fleeing.
But until then, I’ve got papers to grade. Hopefully.