When I set up the schedules for my classes before the start of each semester, I always try to paint my plans with the broadest brush strokes possible. I have a few set activities I always do at the start of every semester to help acclimate students to my classes (and college life in general), and setting due dates for major assignments ahead of time is always a necessity, but I’ve always tried to be as improvisational of a teacher as possible, adapting to the day-to-day needs and wants of my students to keep my teaching as relatable as I can. This wasn’t so easy when I started teaching sixteen years ago, but once I started gaining experience as an instructor, it became easier for me to follow (and trust) my instincts. This isn’t to say that every improvisation I’ve done in my classes has worked well — far from it — but between the theoretical knowledge I continue to gather through my reading and other research, and the practical experiences I’ve had in my teaching career, I’d like to think that I’ve continued to get better at my craft.
There’s a whole rant boiling up in me right now about why this crucial interaction with students necessitates a living, breathing human being as a teacher, not some computer algorithm that just looks at answers to multiple-choice questions, but I’ll have to save that for another time. I mention the improvisational nature of my teaching right now because it adds a high degree of uncertainty to work that is already far from certain. I started teaching before YouTube became a thing, before the first iPhone was released, and if I was still teaching my students in the same way I taught my first class in 2005 (right as a hurricane tore up New Orleans), I wouldn’t be a good teacher. People change, and thus teaching must change to meet the needs of the new people who come into our classrooms, whether they’re five years old or fifty-five. Keeping up with these changes can be maddeningly difficult, but if we’re going to be effective teachers, it’s necessary work not only before the academic year starts, but as it’s going on as well.
This year, of course, the base level of uncertainty is off the charts. Like other campuses, mine is returning to mostly in-person classes this year, a decision that was made months ago. These past few weeks, I’ve been keeping an eye on my campus email every day to see if that decision would be reversed, but with barely over forty-eight hours to go before our first classes of fall semester start, it feels safe to assume that our classes will all run as they’ve been scheduled to run for months now. This could change at any time, of course, and as the COVID-19 resurgence in America continues seemingly unabated, I trust that my bosses will be looking at what’s happening with the pandemic not just nationally, but regionally and even on our campuses, in making the day-to-day decisions about how to do things here.
Now that I’ve been back to campus to prepare for Thursday’s start of the semester, though, I’d be lying if I said that I’m not feeling even more nervous than before. As difficult as the previous year of pandemic learning was, at least I knew that I was going to be teaching online, and I could plan things out accordingly. I’m figuring that I’ll have to spend the rest of my teaching career designing both in-person and online tracks for all my courses in the event that modalities have to change for any reason, and while I accept that as a new responsibility in my vocation, it’s not always the easiest thing to do. Especially with every day bringing new stories of schools sending students home because of COVID-19 breakouts, it would be foolish not to be concerned about the possibility of a catastrophe befalling our own campuses. I thought about this a lot over the summer, but now that I’ve been back on campus, back in my office, back in the spaces where everything is about to go down, it kind of brings home the reality of just what we’re about to do here, and the risks we’re all taking.
I honestly believe that any teacher who isn’t a little nervous before the start of each new term probably isn’t that effective a teacher, because as much preparation as we do for our classes, we never really know how they’re going to go until we are in that space (physical or virtual) with our new students. I’ve never felt any shame in admitting that I was nervous in the buildup to the start of a new term, and I don’t feel any shame in saying that I may be more nervous now than I’ve been for a long, long time in my teaching career. As diligently as I’ve tried to prepare for this “new normal” of college life, when I’m finally back teaching in a classroom later this week, perhaps more than ever before, I’ll have to make it up as I go along. I’ve been doing that for sixteen years now, and I want to believe that I’ll be ready for the new challenges we’ll all be facing. As always, though, there is hardly any certainty to what it is that I do.