Making it through, one class at a time.
After the end of one of my Year 12 Zoom classes last week, I was struck by a weird sense of ennui. It was something that in all the years I’ve been teaching I had never experienced before. I’ve experienced every kind of emotion from breaking down in tears to hollering for joy but never this sense of emptiness.
It wasn’t that it was a bad lesson. In fact, given the circumstances, it was an excellent one. My class have somehow managed to do as I suggested and not look too far ahead but focus on what we can control. In this case it was writing essays about Australian theatre. The 80 minutes went like a flash and after I’d suggested what to focus on in the following days, we waved cheery goodbyes and “headed off” for the next Zoom.
Because I had a “free period” I took a moment to gather my thoughts and think about what was coming next. I had more classes to Zoom with and had a pretty fair idea of what we were going to do.
So, I gave myself a breather. It was then it came over me. This lethargy that I had never experienced before. I didn’t experience it during the last Lockdown but I was feeling it now. I was, frankly, “as flat as a pancake”. I couldn’t work it out.
Then I thought about the teaching I was doing. With all classes, including Year 12, I felt as though we were making the most of the cards we had been dealt. We were getting the work done and having a few laughs along the way.
It is different though. There’s no denying that staring at a screen with 20 odd faces staring back at you is quite different to standing in front a group of students in a classroom situation. For a start, when you make a lame joke and it goes flat, the reaction from a “live” class to one on screen is quite, quite different. You can see everyone’s face in a Zoom class. Up close and personal. When they stare at you with quizzical faces it is quite clear that they didn’t get the joke and, if they did, they didn’t think it was funny. In a live situation you wouldn’t even notice it.
The flip side, and I have no idea how to explain this and, less of a one how to describe it, are the bonds that develop. What often happens in these Zoom classes is that there are moments of deep connection with your students. Ones that transcend the normal, day to day interactions. They do happen from time to time in class when you catch someone nodding at something you’ve said and you know they’ve got it. This is different. It’s more profound. It might be a little wave or a smile or just a look that says, “thank you”. It’s very affecting.
What it tells me is just how much these students need us and value us. It is quite humbling. I do know from last Lockdown that it changes your relationship for ever. There is a new bond, a new trust, established that remains unspoken but will never be eroded.
All of this makes teaching Year 12 in the current circumstances quite confronting.
As I said, I tell my class to deal with each day as it comes.
“A ball at a time”.
The thing is in the current climate this is well-nigh impossible. The constant speculation about what is coming down the line is extremely unsettling.
Will there be Trial examinations? If there are, when will they be? What shape will they take?
Will Year 12 be going back to school at all? If so, when and how? Have they spent their last days at school being shunted off to Lockdown not knowing if they will ever return?
What about the end of year examinations themselves?
And the practical subjects that have seemingly been thrown into disarray?
Year 12 students who have worked for years on music, drama and dance performances who, in many cases, only took the subject because of its performative nature, suddenly find themselves being told there won’t be a practical component and if there is it will be a significantly watered down one.
Then there are the end of Year 12 rituals that have become part and parcel of the journey for a graduating student. The assemblies, the farewells, the march outs, the shirt signings, the formals and the dinners. These are as much part of a final year at high school as the end of year exams themselves. Year 12 students around the country have spent six years dreaming about these rituals and now they are being taken away from them.
In this climate of uncertainty, is it fair to make pronouncements that can change at the drop of a hat? For a year group who have lost just about everything, is it fair to repeatedly raise their expectations and then dash them?
I don’t talk about this to my students but I feel it just as surely as they do. So does every other teacher.
*An edited version of this article was published in the Age 11/8/2021