(Lack of) the Calm Before

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Texas Parent Rips Off Teacher’s Mask in School Altercation (Newsweek via msn.com)

Today is three years to the day that I left Colorado for Wisconsin, and I didn’t need one of my social media apps to remind me of that fact this morning, since this day on the calendar is always going to be special to me for that reason. What I did need reminding of, though, was that it was on this day last year that I asked my friends on that social media service for support, because it was coming up on the start of the first full semester of the COVID-19 pandemic and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was, as I now remember, in the middle of the worst stress stomachache I’d ever had in my life, and even though I had a rough idea of how the semester would go — no one expected that we’d be moving classes back to in-person due to a miraculous super-early vaccine — I wasn’t that confident in my abilities to reach my students. I’d taught online before, but that had been years earlier, at an institution where many of my students only had dial-up Internet (thus ruling out the possibility of Zoom classes and limiting me to asynchronous delivery), and those students weren’t having to deal with the problems of an ever-worsening pandemic. Even after teaching the second half of the previous semester online, reaching a new group of students — students who had been denied the rituals of high school graduation and senior prom, among other things, to say nothing of those students dealing with sick friends and/or family — was going to be one of the biggest challenges of my teaching career.

I did the best I could under the circumstances, and I certainly had my share of success stories, but as I’ve mentioned here before, I crashed hard at the end of this past spring semester. I’ve never experienced burnout like this before in my life, and a lot of this summer, which I’d been hoping to spend researching my next book, has wound up being self-care time. I did some tutoring for a special programme for high schoolers earlier this month, and my energy started coming back to me then, but today marks ten days before the start of the new school year, where all but one of my classes will be meeting in-person, and even if my stomach isn’t feeling as bad as it did at this time last year, I’d be lying if I said that I feel anything better than “pretty bad” right now.

About a week and a half ago, the chancellor of our parent campus announced that masks would be mandatory on campus, even for those of us who have received our COVID-19 vaccinations, through the end of the calendar year. I’d been planning on wearing a mask anyway — not just for safety purposes, but also because it will save me from the makeup rigmarole that I really don’t want to deal with right now — but as wholeheartedly as I agree with the chancellor’s decision, I know that there are going to be a lot of people who don’t like it, and some of those people may be in my classes this fall semester. As more and more news stories get broadcast about pandemic fatigue boiling over, it’s impossible to avoid worrying about what might happen if an episode erupts on campus in the coming weeks, especially if it happens in one of my classrooms.

I’ve been teaching English for sixteen years now, and in that time I’ve had a couple of students threaten violence against me. (I’m honestly surprised that number isn’t higher.) I was able to defuse both situations before they escalated too far, but I have to wonder if my luck may be about to run out here. I know what I’m supposed to do in the event that a student becomes violent, but I’ve never had to put that training into action before, and as solid as I tend to be in crisis situations, all it can take for these situations to snowball into something massive is for one small thing to go wrong. With all of us fighting pandemic fatigue on some level (even if it doesn’t make us turn violent), it feels like every little thing could go wrong here more frequently than used to happen in “the old normal.”

Like a lot of you, I’m monitoring the recent resurgence of COVID-19 cases, especially here in America. It would not surprise me at all to have classes moved back online in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak on any of our campuses, even if only for a couple of weeks. One of the big challenges I’m facing right now is planning out future in-person classes that may have to be moved to online delivery at a moment’s notice, and that’s something I’ll probably have to do for the rest of my teaching career now. I’d like to think that all my years of doing this will help me get through the difficult first weeks of the new year, as has happened before, but if we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it is to take nothing for granted. In spite of pandemic fatigue, in spite of all the concerns I have about the health and mental well-being of my students (and, yes, me as well), I need to bust my ass here to make this coming year of teaching the best I can possibly make it. I’ll just have to hope that common sense and respect for others, as rare as those things seem to be in this age, will prevail in my classrooms once again.

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