Looking Back On The Longest Semester

A few weeks ago, while catching up with a student over coffee, I mentioned how challenging a semester it had been for most of my students and me. They knowingly nodded and replied, “it is as if students have forgotten how to be students.”

I instantly paused because that summed it up more succinctly than I could, and I had been thinking about writing this post for weeks but hadn’t found the appropriate words. 

Besides the end of the Spring 2020 semester when the world jumped onto Zoom, I’ve been in the classroom during the Pandemic. Fall 2020 and our switch to hybrid made for more extra work than I ever imagined, but forward we pushed. Spring 2021 wasn’t as bad because while still hybrid, the heavy lifting of recorded lectures was done, and I only had three instead of four courses to teach.

This fall, we returned to entirely in-person learning, and damn did it feel good. That first day on The Dimple during orientation with hundreds of smiling faces warmed my heart and filled my soul with hope. 

A green college green is full of groups of students in circles having conversations.

First-year students always find challenges as they transition to college. But, when you add that the last year of their school had been spent in front of screens for most of them, it adds a new layer to the challenge cake. Plus, we had a large portion of the sophomore class who had never been on a college campus.

I do find it a challenge to teach in masked classrooms. While I’ve become better at reading expressions based only on eyes, it is much harder to look out into a classroom of masked students and gauge if they are grasping what you are teaching. Plus, as someone who has trouble learning names, masks make it almost impossible to get to know my students at the level I like.

My classroom is a place for discussion and conversation. I want the students to be engaged, and no matter how thick the lecture gets, I like conversations going at all times. 

A gray classroom of students work in groups on an assignment.

This semester it felt like pulling teeth sometimes to get those conversations going. Even in one course where it was all seniors, and I knew almost every student from previous classes, it was more difficult than it should have been. 

After class one day, a student I didn’t know stopped me outside the building because they were interested in careers in the topic we had covered. We talked for a solid 15 minutes, and before we separated, I asked why they had never spoken a single time in class and why they thought the class was so quiet.

“Zoom learning broke us. We’ve all grown used to just staring and learning, but not speaking.”

Another bit of insight from a student that I haven’t been able to shake because it explained so much.

I talked to fellow educators at various schools, and all of them reflected my experience. More missed assignments. Students not putting in the appropriate level of effort. Silent classrooms. 

A library room is full of students working in groups at individual tables.

More than once, I told students, “Your grades are not the most important thing in your lives right now,” and I meant it. Mental health challenges are everywhere. Students are worried about their health on top of family and friends. It is hard to get assignments done when you don’t know what tomorrow holds. I removed some assignments this semester to lighten the load and ensure that anything I wanted to do had good reason. 

This was a tough semester, and each of us is doing all we can to maintain our sanity while trying to help those around us. I’m sure plenty of my students and advisees got sick of seeing my name pop up in their messages, checking in to make sure they were ok. But, when you hear from at least a couple of them that the messages did matter, it makes all the worry worth it.

None of us know what the spring semester holds, but I’m hopeful that this past semester helped students shake some of the COVID crust off of their souls and that they’ll be a bit more focused, engaged, and able to apply more effort to their studies. 

The sun shines through the trees of a picturesque New England college campus.

This coming semester will be full of new challenges as our school starts the next evolution and all the interesting things that come with times of transition. I’m excited for the road ahead and where it may take us all. Plus, I get to move into a new office in a few weeks!

I promised myself that I’d write this before the end of the year, and just like when I was a student, I’m getting it done in the final hours. I hope that you are healthy, safe, and doing well if you are reading this. To my students, I can’t wait to see you again when we all return and push our way forward together. 

Happy New Year!