School has started for many higher education professionals, and if it hasn’t it will in the next few days. But this semester is different from previous semesters, and I want to acknowledge that on behalf of educators.
In the last year or two we have been hearing a lot about the mental health of students. We’ve been hearing about how we need to be patient with our students and do everything we can to be helpful and compassionate to them. They are struggling. They need our understanding. They need our support. They need us to be there for them and to be stable for them. Most of all, they need us to understand that this is hard for them.
All of that is true.
But there hasn’t been as much talk about educator’s mental health.
Teachers need patience. Teachers need help and compassion. Educators are struggling. We need understanding. We need support. We need somebody to be there for us and to be stable for us. We need somebody to understand that this is hard for us.
There are certain fields, like the medical field, the service industry, education, and even the clergy, who have felt the last two years acutely. These occupations have been asked to carry the burden of the pandemic for a culture that is already strained beyond its breaking point.
Most professors spent 2020 scrambling to make face-to-face classes somehow go online, and then move their regular classes online for the spring 2021 classes. Students across the nation were out of traditional class for almost a year.
So when fall 2021 rolled around, and students were back in the classroom, we knew there would be a period of readjustment. But we were unprepared for just how steep that would be.
Let’s consider what happened at the K-12 level.
According to Jessica Dickler,
After a year of school closings and distance learning amid the coronavirus crisis, more than half of public school K-12 teachers said the pandemic resulted in a “significant” learning loss for students, both academically and from a social-emotional standpoint, according to a report by Horace Mann.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also suggested that virtual learning “might present more risks than in-person instruction related to child and parental mental and emotional health and some health-supporting behaviors.”
“The pandemic has taken a toll on our students from an educational perspective, but there are a lot of other impacts happening,” said Kelly Ruwe, an education advocate for Horace Mann, as well as a former kindergarten teacher and a mother of three.
Nearly all — more than 97% — of educators reported seeing some learning loss in their students over the past year when compared with children in previous years, and a majority, or 57%, estimated their students are behind by more than three months in their social-emotional progress, Horace Mann found.
Some teachers suggested these setbacks could be addressed by adding on summer sessions or bringing teacher’s aides into the classroom for one-on-one or small group instruction. Still, nearly one-third expected more students will need to repeat a grade.
The Voice of the Educator Study polled nearly 1,000 educators, including public school K-12 teachers, administrators and support staff in February and March 2021.
A separate study by McKinsey & Company found similar results worldwide. The majority of teachers from eight different countries said that remote learning is a poor substitute for being back in the classroom.
The U.S. and Japan gave distance learning the harshest scores overall, with a majority of teachers ranking the effectiveness only slightly better than skipping school completely.
Now, there are things that must be taken into account, here. Most educators are not trained to provide online education and did not receive the support they needed to produce quality online education. There are a number of defenders of online education who argue that we cannot assess online education based on 2020 and 2021 because that was not online education. That was triage.
But, the point remains – when students came back from a year away, they had forgotten how to be students. And that is true for college students as well. As my colleagues and I said with a certain amount of tongue in cheek, our students had forgotten how to college.
But it wasn’t funny.
It caused chaos and stress for everyone. It didn’t matter how clear you made the instructions – assignments were baffling. Deadlines were a joke. The idea of doing the reading or the assigned work was laughable. I had one colleague who told her classes she would accept any work up until the final, regardless of what the due date was. She would accept all late work. She hardly got any work throughout the semester and the last week of class she was getting up to 40 assignments a day turned in because her students were trying to do the entire semester’s worth of work in a week. That sounds absurd, but it is not a unique circumstance. We ALL had stories of students who didn’t turn in anything throughout the semester and then tried desperately to cram all of it into a few days at the end. And because we have been told over and over again to be understanding and be flexible some of us let them try. It was, of course, no surprise that these students struggled mightily.
Then there were the mental health issues we had to contend with. Our students were hanging on by a thread. And we were the nearest scapegoats. Our students took their frustrations and their worries out on their professors because their professors were the obvious bad guys. We were asking them to work and imposing what seemed like arbitrary deadlines on them and seemed like we were demanding the impossible in extreme circumstances. So they took all their worries and their fears and their anxieties and foisted them onto the nearest available target – and for many that was us, their professors. This came out in emails, in exchanges about grades and assignments, and most notably in course evaluations.
But in a way, it’s hard to blame them. WERE we the bad guys? The world was falling apart. COVID was worse then than when schools shut down originally. The Great Resignation was sweeping through the nation. Their families were being affected by disease and financial problems. The country was split by arguments over masks and vaccines, not to mention the threats to democracy that were haunting us. And we were asking them to write papers? Do math homework? We were the tools of capitalism at its worst. “Hey, society is crumbling all around you but the most important thing is for you to be productive!” How is that manageable? I mean, we were barely making it, and we were asking our students to be herculean in their efforts, as well. We were all caught up in this dreadful cycle in which we were demanding the impossible of each other and being frustrated when the other couldn’t produce, when production was exactly what needed to be critiqued at that point in time. We were all so frustrated with each other because capitalism had us caught in an unending and impossible cycle.
So now we’re staring down the barrel of spring 2022. We’ve been back and we’ve seen what it’s like here. We’ve had some time to feel each other out.
And we are anxious.
Professors across the board are dreading going back to school this spring. The fall was so hard. Educators on twitter and on all manner of social media are talking about their angst about the spring. Professors who usually find teaching the most energizing part of their jobs find themselves worried and wanting to avoid the classroom. One of the best teachers I know told me she has already given up on this semester. She hasn’t even started yet.
All of this sounds a little hopeless.
But even when things seemed completely futile, when this all seemed so pointless – there were reasons to hope.
There were those emails from students, maybe students who didn’t say much throughout the semester, who just wanted to tell you how much they learned and how much their class meant to you.
There were those final projects that just blew you away. Those papers or videos that went so far and away above your expectations that it just about made you cry. These kids who worked hard all year and then in the end did something so impressive that you wanted to tell everybody you knew how amazing they were. And it felt so good because not only did somebody get it – somebody excelled at it.
But just as fulfilling were the kids who struggled all semester and at the end pulled it off with a solid passing grade that you know they were proud of. And you were proud of them, too. Because you know they worked just as hard as those A students and you think they deserve just as much accolade.
All of these are small things, but they are things that remind us there is hope. Things will get better. Our students haven’t completely given up on us. Even if it feels like it sometimes.
And I didn’t come here today to just tell all my listeners that higher education has given up. On the contrary, this semester is just an indicator of how much educators are willing to fight for their students.
Because the thing is, professors haven’t given up. We recognize just how important it is to provide a sense of normality and stability to our students. We recognize just how important it is to be there for our students. And we recognize that, even in the face of budget crises, enrollment crises, and attacks on education, our jobs matter. What we do is important.
Last week you heard from Gina Opdycke Terry, a teacher who is engaged with the fight for education at the K-12 level. This week you’re going to hear from Jake Nickell, who is a lecturer at SUNY Brockport, who I asked to share his thoughts about what we do, and he was kind enough to send me a few words about not just what it is to be an educator, but specifically an educator in rhetoric right now. Jake says:
Despite its long history as part of academia, the study of rhetoric is often considered to be a field defined by abstraction. Much of what we discuss feels overly theoretical, our terminology esoteric, and our concerns inapplicable. However, the COVID pandemic has highlighted the tangible and universal impact of language and, thus, of rhetoric. Competing messages circulate the various news outlets we as a public count on for information. Politicizing language of the virus, vaccines, and protection guidelines have polarized the government and its people more than ever. Not only have these rhetorics impacted the physical health of us and our loved ones, but they have also complicated the way we communicate with each other. As such, now is of particular importance for our students to engage with the field of rhetorical criticism. To be a rhetorician is nothing more or less than to be a critical evaluator of the messages one consumes. This, of course, includes the core content of the message, but also the context in which it is delivered, its creator, its audiences, the channel through which it was deployed, its timing, and, perhaps most importantly, its potential social implications. It is of paramount importance that we do what we can to give our students the tools to improve their communication literacy – so that they can understand the ways that language, including that surrounding COVID, generates new and often mutually-exclusive messages that have significant impacts on our lives. Only through this recognition and the ability to evaluate the intricacies of messages presented to us can we judge the information we received and make informed, reasonable decisions about how we should think and act.
Ultimately, as scholars and teachers who believe in the power of language to define our understandings of ourselves, others, and our social conditions, it is our responsibility to discuss the ways in which messages could interact with conceptions of identity and have profound, tangible implications for our society. It is imperative to show our students how some of the more seemingly abstract and theoretical aspects of our discipline can help us achieve practical and actionable understandings of the world around us.
Thanks so much Jake. I know how dedicated you are to your students and how much they respect you. I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts with us.
There’s a lot going on in the world that makes ALL of our jobs hard right now. Educators aren’t alone or special in that. But today I wanted to acknowledge the feelings a lot of us are feeling as we head into spring 2022. But I also wanted to remind us that just because things are hard, doesn’t mean they aren’t important.
I want to sign off with some words that mean a lot to me. Some of you know of my advisor, James Aune, who we lost far too early a few years ago. He penned this Prayer for the First Day of School that has always brought me some focus and peace, so now I am sharing it with you:
Praised are You, Adonai, Our God, Ruler of the Universe who has made us holy with commandments and commanded us to engage in the study of Torah. You have told us that the study of the universe and the humans who live in it is a way to worship You. Help us to remember with Rabbi Tarfon, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. You, you are not free to desist from it.” Help us to remember with Leo Strauss: “Always imagine that there is at least one student in class who is superior in heart and mind.” Help us to remember with T.H. White: “The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.