Most of us are not feeling the anticipation we usually feel at the beginning of a new academic year. Anxiety is closer to what most of us are experiencing. What’s going to happen when the students come back to campus—or when they don’t? How bad are finances at the institution? Are cuts to jobs or programs a possibility? Will the semester end as it began? With so much up in the air, I wondered whether it would help to review what we know for sure—certainties in these times of uncertainty.
We’ve got students who need teachers, even more than they usually do. Growing up isn’t easy, never has been, but the uncertainties add another layer. For older students, heading back to school with life already in full swing is always challenging, but now issues at home and work add more complications. But the reasons students opt for school haven’t changed. They’re after the credentials that structured learning opportunities provide. Everything we teach can be learned without us, but the vast majority of students learn more and learn it better when a teacher guides the process. Yes, right now we’re doing more hand-holding than usual, but what students most need are models of how educated persons act in times of uncertainty—that quiet calm; the reasoned, thoughtful response; the confidence that we’ll figure it out; and the conviction that we’ll prevail in the course, in college, and beyond. With so much up in the air, students need us to help them stay grounded.
It may be a year of unknowns, but we start it knowing how to teach. Some of us have miles of experience behind us, and others may not have been on the road for long. All of us, however, are sophisticated learners who understand what teachers can do to aid the learning process. We can explain things, provide examples, ask questions, answer questions, rephrase, refute, summarize, document, provide lists, and draw from our repertoire a host of other teaching behaviors that pave the road to learning. We don’t always teach perfectly. Our teaching remains a work in progress, but we can still trust ourselves. This fall our job is to teach. That hasn’t changed, and it’s something we know how to do.
Then there’s our content—we know it, in most cases love it, and are firmly convinced of its inherent worth. How many of us announce with conviction that the material in the course we are about to teach contains some of the most important content students will learn in college? And the uncertainties of 2020 haven’t changed that. Moreover, is there anything we teach from which larger lessons cannot be extracted—lessons with relevance to what we’re experiencing in the pandemic, as a country, on the planet, and in our daily lives?
We’ve got colleagues who care, if not next door then no further than a text away. We’re not starting a new academic year alone. The uncertainties are shared. We grapple with an array of changing circumstances together. In more settled times, most of our instructional knowledge we glean from each other. Research consistently confirms that. With new instructional issues emerging, we need to rely on our collective abilities to solve problems, learn from mistakes, and collaborate on creative solutions. And when anxiety and pessimism fester inside, we can turn to each other for the advice and support we need to carry on. Our colleagues who care will be there for us, just as we will be there for them.
Finally, we’ve got a mission that matters: we’re educators! What a role education has to play when uncertainty surrounds us—it fills the need for reasoned discourse, develops the ability to sort fact from fiction, establishes the value of multiple perspectives, promotes respect for all, and legitimizes challenging assumptions. The current crisis will be resolved, most likely by a vaccine developed by persons with an education. Equally compromising issues, problems, and crises will emerge in our students’ futures, and in those uncertain situations there’ll be the same urgent need for educated answers.
No, it’s not the academic year we’d choose, but it’s the one that’s ahead of us. While uncertainty abounds, it’s tethered to powerful forces that will pull us through. This year holds all the promise and potential of every new academic year. They are yours to realize.
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