Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Teachers Are the New Essential Workers

 Me to Student #1: Um, tell your roommate that everyone can see him right now, or at least tell him to put on a shirt. And pants. 

Student's roommate: Nah, it's cool! I'm wearing boxers. Hellooo, ladies. (Several female students in my class giggle.)

Student #1: I'm turning off my webcam now.

Student #2: I can't come to class today. My roommate just got infected with the virus and now I have it too.

Student #3: I can't turn in my paper tomorrow. I just tested positive for the virus. I don't know what happened. I mean, I did go to a party last weekend, but there were only, like, thirty people there.

Student #4: I don't have the virus, but this whole pandemic has made me really stressed out. I can't come to the live class sessions on Zoom anymore, but can you just email me everything I missed? 

Me: Excuse me for a moment. (Turns off webcam, mutes microphone, screams into pillow, and then turns everything back on.) No.

Before the fall semester started, I sent my syllabi for the classes I was teaching to my bosses. It was the same syllabi that I'd used last year, and they'd approved it. But since I am teaching my classes on Zoom this semester, my syllabi came back with many "suggestions" (translation: change this or we will point at you during the next faculty meeting on Zoom and yell, "SHAME"). They said that I shouldn't have every class be a live class; they told all the faculty that at least one class a week should be "asynchronous", meaning instead of teaching it on Zoom, we should provide recordings of ourselves teaching, post notes online, assign short writing assignments or group activities, etc.

On the one hand, I understand why they wanted us to make these changes. But when I revised my syllabus, I looked at my syllabus and realized that I was basically teaching THEIR class, not mine. One thing I always liked about college teaching was that although all the faculty had basic requirements to meet, such as assigning a certain number of pages or revisions for the students to write, teaching them certain skills, and so forth, it was up to us to decide what to include in our classes and how to teach them. But this time, it was all up to my bosses, and I couldn't help resenting that.

Also, the problem with all that asynchronous content is that it creates a lot more work for me to do and grade. I've been spending so much time at my computer that sometimes I have to take a break and lie down on my bed for a few minutes to rest my eyes. 

At the college where I teach, the students are allowed to live on campus (although some of them chose to remain at home and attend classes online), but most of their classes are online. They get tested regularly and the college keeps a close watch on their movements. The campus police has been patrolling the dorms to make sure they don't have parties, but trying to prevent undergrads from partying is like trying to prevent Donald Trump from Tweeting (and can I just say, "HALLELUJAH!" that he was not reelected! I was so nervous while I was watching for results of the election. It was like watching the end of a horror movie, where you're on the edge of your seat wondering if the villain will win and destroy everyone.).

At a faculty meeting on Zoom before classes started, one of my bosses said, "We need to be more lenient with the students this semester. They've been going through a hard time, so they should not be penalized as much for late work or absences."

The problem is that when the students turn in their work late, I end up staying up late to grade all the late work that are turned in several days after I finish grading all the other assignments. When students don't show up for the live sessions (and it's not always due to the virus because a lot of them will email me and say they overslept or that they "forgot" what time the class started), they bombard my inbox with emails or request extra appointments outside of the regular office hours that I hold on Zoom. And since they know I'm working from home, they expect me to be available to talk to them online whenever they need help.

Student #5: Do you have any office hours on Saturday? 

Me: I don't hold office hours on Saturday. 

Student #5: Oh. How about Sunday then? 

Me: No. 

Student: Well, do you have any openings for tonight, like at 11 P.M.? 

Me: Excuse me for a minute. (Turns off camera, mutes microphone, and takes an aspirin. Seriously considers giving up my stance as a teetotaler because I could really use a drink right now. Turns camera back on.) No. 

It's also been harder to track down the students who don't turn in their work at all. When I taught on campus, I could talk to them after class. But when they don't turn in their work, I can try to send them a private DM asking them to stay after the Zoom session ends so I can talk to them, or I can email them. What usually happens is that they ignore my emails and log out before I can talk to them. My boss conceded that if these students try to dump all their work on me at the end of the semester, I can at least say no to that.

My bosses also told me not to make the students turn on their webcams, which means that during many of the live sessions, I'm often the only one with a webcam turned on and I'm literally speaking to a bunch of black boxes with students' names on them. It's disheartening, to say the least. It's also hard to tell if the students are actually paying attention or if they're just surfing the Internet or napping during my class. Based on the emails I've gotten where they repeatedly ask questions about things I already covered during my lectures, I'd say it's the latter a lot of the time.

I understand that the students are going through a difficult time. This is not the college experience they signed up for. And that's why I've set aside extra office hours (but NOT on weekends or at night) and given out many extensions to help them. 

But teachers are going through a hard time too, and we don't get extensions or extra accommodations. The government has deemed us "essential workers" now, so we're expected to basically suck it up and do our jobs. I might be required to teach on campus again in the near future, and I'm afraid to do that unless my department is willing to give me the money to buy a Hazmat suit. It's bad enough that the students used to give me the flu every year, partly because some of them would accidentally sneeze on their papers and then hand it to me. (That's one of the reasons that I now require them to submit their work online instead.)

I know it could be worse. My college professor friends in Small Town said that they have to teach on Zoom and in person at the same time, meaning they teach on campus but have to stay within sight of their webcams so that other students can attend class online. They also have to wear masks the whole time. 

And there are a few perks to working from home. I don't have to wear the mask. I can wear jeans and forgo uncomfortable dress shoes when I'm teaching because my students can only see me from the waist up when I'm sitting in front of the computer. 

And I am grateful to still have my college teaching job and my website job, especially since so many people have lost theirs. But sometimes, I find myself reverting back to the full-fledged workaholic that I used to be, where I do little else but work, eat, sleep, and scream into my pillow. I find myself feeling easily irritated more often now, and I've been stress eating again (I just can't say no to you, doughnuts.). That's also why I haven't been blogging; I literally have not had time.

I know that this is my job, and I really do have to suck it up, at least for now. And I am willing to help the students, and I have. But I can't help wishing that teachers could get more than just a "We appreciate teachers" Tweet, or at least that more people (like our bosses, for example) would acknowledge that by forcing us to accommodate the students in practically every way, we're being forced to work so many more hours with no accommodations of our own.

Sorry. I have to order some new pillows. I may or may not have ripped my old one to shreds.

What about you? Are you an essential worker? Even if you're not an essential worker, what has it been like for you at work now that things have been reopening? 


  1. I feel so frustrated for you, just reading that. Like you say though, there are some small perks that you wouldn't have in your old college. But it feels like all the concessions are being made for the students without thinking out this is affecting their teachers. We're all fumbling in the dark and trying to figure this out - unfortunately some kids will always attempt to take advantage.

    I hope you find a way to work that suits you x

    1. Hi Annalisa,
      It's definitely been very frustrating. During a faculty meeting on Zoom I said that students should be held accountable for absences and late work, unless they had the virus, but other faculty made it sound like I was cruel to even suggest that. When students aren't held accountable and are given "exceptions" every time they ask for one, they will have a rude awakening when they start working and will get upset when their bosses and colleagues don't do the same thing for them.

  2. I hear you! Not that I'm a teacher myself, but I've just been so grateful that my daughter's school has managed to stay open this semester. Teaching online is a whole different way of working and teachers have been so amazing throughout all of this. Sending you virtual coffee and pillows :p

    1. Hi Deniz,
      Thank you! I appreciate that! I've definitely been drinking a lot of coffee throughout all of this. I don't know how the teachers working with younger students are making it work; I saw a video of a kindergarten teacher who actually dressed up in costumes to keep her students engaged.

  3. I've always thought teachers were essential workers. Some of the most important workers. It's sad how undervalued they are and have been, and what they're going through. This is a tough time. Teachers are warriors! YOU are a warrior.

    1. Hi Chrys,
      Thank you for what you wrote. I wish that more people shared your opinion; people often say that teachers don't have a tough job because we get summers off, but I think if they did our jobs for just one week they'd understand why we really need a summer off. And many of us teachers work during the summer anyway.