These were first-year students, 18, maybe 19 years old. Ensconced in their various student residences, homes, apartments. Unreliable internet, roommates, siblings, the occasional cat. It's English class towards the end of the semester, and at this point a quarter, maybe a third of students are logging in to the Zoom classes. It irritates me, but I get it. In this class, we practice reading and listening comprehension, a little speaking, a little writing. When everyone in the class has done their homework, I consider it a miracle. Mostly, it's just me trying to squeeze water from the proverbial stone, gesticulating wildly on camera to a bunch of little blacked-out squares, articulating clearly, doing anything to elicit any reaction or sign of life. Yet still, yesterday, I nearly had to turn off my camera from the building pressure in my heart and the throbbing at my temples.
By chance, I chose a speaking activity from the pre-prepared booklet we all use in this course that prompted the students to talk about the educational system. Do they think it functions well? What would they change? Do they think teachers are trained properly? (I took that question personally given that according to the French Ministry of Education, I'm qualified to teach kids aged 12-18. Or else, I'm good at writing university-level literary reflection essays and b.s.-ing my way through translation.) I put them into groups (well, breakout rooms in Zoom), and I also encouraged them to discuss how they've felt the transition from high school to college has been going. Before I even hit "go" on the breakout rooms, I could see someone students smirking. This is France where the chief professional sport is complaining. Obviously they would have things to say. I braced myself for some eye rolling, good old-fashioned venting. Not that I wouldn't have agreed with them.
10 minutes for a breakout group discussion. I answered some emails, prepared the worksheet for the next activity, checked Instagram. Should have gotten the tissues out.
"Welcome back, everyone! Please turn your cameras back on... Who has some thoughts on the educational system?"
A moment of silence, the quiet before the storm.
Silence, a teacher's worst nightmare in a discussion activity.
"I have something, can I speak?"
And the floodgates have opened.
It turns out these brave few students, the ones who still bother to show up to Zoom class in December, are humans with soft, gooey centers. They feel isolated, they feel like they were expected to *poof* become adults in the intervening two months between high school and university, they have too much homework (ok...) and professors who won't listen to them, they can't balance work and social life because they just don't know how, they've never learned to study because subjects came easily to them in high school, and suddenly the expectations are much higher, Zoom is unbelievably depressing, they felt pressured in high school to pick a certain curriculum and then felt trapped by it, they don't see how past experiences (math class) have any relation to the present or future, nobody is teaching them how to prepare their taxes, people are telling them they're foolish for going back to university at age 23, dress codes at school penalize girls and do nothing to remind boys that they ought not objectify women, they've been dealing with anxiety and learning disabilities in an educational system that only thinks about the neurotypical students...
They're reaching their breaking point. And no professor has yet taken the time to ask them, how are you coping?
As I listened to them speak, and as I relayed all my best advice, tips, tricks, know-how, I felt a ball of emotion building in my chest. They were so earnest. They kept speaking in English! They wanted to be taken seriously. I wanted to reach through the screen and hold each student in my arms. I kept reminding them that they aren't alone, that it takes courage to reach out and ask for help, that I am here to help them. And I told them honestly what it's like from the teacher's perspective: we have so many students who lie and abuse the system, that we get jaded and every student becomes a potential exaggerating drama queen. In the 5 years that I've been teaching, I've had baptism-by-fire practice in weeding through the b.s. to reach through to those students who genuinely need a pedagogical push (or just a pep talk!).
Teaching is my purpose in life. It fulfills me and frustrates me, all at once, showing me that I truly care about the people in front of me. I've had jobs where I left the office and didn't think twice about the frantic emails waiting for me in the morning. I never felt motivated in those jobs. I probably didn't work to my potential. But every class is a new chance to connect, to inform, to inspire, to listen, to reach through and make someone's life a little brighter, whether through an emotional discussion about the transition to college or the sudden comprehension of why we use the present perfect. This semester has been challenging, heartbreaking, and joyful, all in one. When we moved to the North, I didn't know if I would even be able to continue teaching at the university. I live for standing in front of a college class and teaching my lesson. (I tell my students this: it doesn't matter what degree you got if you can creatively apply it to the job you want. I have a degree in music. It taught me how to prepare a song, get on a stage, connect with an audience, and convince that audience of my earnest interpretation of the music. Sound like teaching?) But now, I sit hunched over at a desk and talk to black squares. Am I still reaching them? Is there still a connection? What do they even get out of this? Am I doing enough? I suppose that question never goes away, Zoom classes or no.
We wrapped up class, and the students hadn't even noticed that we'd gone 5 minutes over time (at lunch time no less!). I hope it's not the last time I have to remind students that it's time to go. I managed to hold myself together, by the way, though barely. I like to think I'm an effective teacher, but I decided that I would make a terrible therapist. This morning, though, I woke up to an email from a student entitled "Therapy." She reached out. I reached someone.