What I Miss Most About Pre-Pandemic Teaching
As we hit the halfway mark of the Spring 2021 semester in addition to the anniversary of campus going online in 2020, I have been reflecting on how my teaching has changed and what I miss most. Part of what I enjoy most about teaching has always been the interactions--getting to know my students, see them grow academically, and developing in-class community. Naturally, the pandemic has made this more challenging, and fundamentally changed all interactions between faculty and students. For this reason, my initial thought was that I would most miss teaching without a mask, being able to approach small groups to provide guidance, or even grading some printed assignments. While I do miss all these things, none of them stands out as the thing I miss most about teaching pre-pandemic. What I miss most is the ability to see students' faces.
I presently teach three sections online and one section in-person. Each class has its strengths, weaknesses, and personality, so nothing has changed in that regard. I've also taught online prior to the pandemic so these sections don't seem abnormal in any way. The in-person class is different though. It is a fairly outgoing group; they're usually very talkative and social, ask lots of questions, and seem very engaged. In many ways, this in-person class is what you would hope for as a teacher because they make it easy to build community. Despite all of these positives, I left this class each day feeling less happy about class than I would have expected. "Why wasn't this as invigorating as I remember from previous years?" I began to wonder.
The answer came to me after I taught this section via Zoom last Friday because I couldn't make it out to campus. During the lesson, each student was in their dorm room or somewhere else on campus and most had their masks off. I was able to see facial expressions, ranging from excitement to pensive to asleep (yes, I missed that too). Seeing these reactions in real-time was exhilarating and reminded me why I became a teacher in the first place. Being able to see their faces instead of just their eyes helped me better gauge where their understanding was, what anecdotes were working, and where I might clarify some points. In this way, I felt like I was actually teaching instead of lecturing to a faceless crowd, never able to predict how best to help them. On Friday, I felt like I knew them, instead of just interacted with them. To a certain extent, the students' behavior indicated they felt more comfortable as well. They could learn without worrying about relative distance, or whether their mask was on appropriately. As I reflected more on this, I believe that the reason I was so excited was that something as simple as seeing everyone's face allowed me to be the best teacher I could and for them to be the best version of students they could.
The pandemic has changed a lot and has challenged academia to confront what it wants to be and what it should be. On individual levels, faculty and students alike have struggled to adapt to new formats and distancing requirements. As a result, it shouldn't come as a shock that nearly everyone is looking forward to time when some semblance of normalcy returns--myself included. When that time does come, I know that what I will be most grateful for is the ability to see my students' faces.