Underpants, cats, and the classroom

I just don’t know about teaching in a classroom.

I know we have to do it, and I am aware that we have no choice. It’s because of the emergency. In seven months, for some of us less, we’ll have to be prepared to teach in the classroom.

Most teachers know that this will be difficult. At times it seems impossible. How can we possibly teach in such a space? Some of us don’t have the training for it. Sure, we’ve hung out in classrooms to meet friends or socialize, but that’s not the same as learning there.

Realistically, how can we get to know our students when they aren’t Zooming from their living rooms, utility rooms, and bedrooms? We can discern so much from the pictures they have on the wall, what items hang in their broom closet, and what space they can (or can’t) claim for themselves.

It will be hard to wrap my head around the learning challenges they face when I can’t see that they’re taking class from their car in a parking lot, or that their parents don’t understand they’re in class and come wandering in wearing only underpants. That’s just not going to happen in the classroom. I won’t be able to hear the noise they’re subjected to when they try to do homework, or see that they enjoy using a different Transformers coffee cup every day.

I won’t have the privilege of meeting their children. No happy waves to the camera, or tugs at the sleeve for a cup of juice. Kids and siblings really give me an idea of who my students are. And pets! They won’t allow pets in a classroom, and you can tell so much about a student from their pet, seeing how they interact with it. We’ll have to abandon that whole Golden Compass thing, with each person having their own familiar. I’m proud that so many cats have learned history from me.

Let’s face it, a physical classroom is a sterile, artificial environment. It smooths away the individuality of our students, with its identical desks and whiteboards. What cool visuals are there in a college classroom? A few maps featuring a divided Germany, a flyer for an event that was over a month ago, some learning cards ordered from a set in 1992. When students are in their own learning spaces, or wherever they can find, we come to know their individuality, and in many cases their creativity.

I’ll miss watching the rearrangement of the cell phone so it leans properly on the bowl of oatmeal, the face turned away from me to yell at someone who’s come in the door, the earnest expression as a student speaks but has forgotten to turn his microphone on. These are all teaching moments.

But I know it can’t last. There’s an enthusiasm for the physical classroom, I realize. And there are people who, in the last few decades, have become real experts in teaching there. I’m of two minds about learning from these utopians. They’re just so enthusiastic about that environment. It’s intimidating. They really believe that learning can happen there, when everyone knows it’s an open question as to whether a physical classroom can ever approximate the online experience of learning.

The pressure on students to answer a question right away, the forbidding of food and drink, the hours spent away from ones dog. The cognitive load involved in seeing everyone’s lower half. I’m just not sure anyone’s ready for it. But if we must, we must. Teachers are nothing if not resilient.

4 thoughts to “Underpants, cats, and the classroom”

  1. Well – this is a provocative post Lisa 🙂 I can see both sides of the argument. Maybe what we will learn out of all this is that it doesn’t have to be ‘either/or’. Teachers and students could have both the online and the face-to-face experience and get the best from both. But I love your description of what you like about online teaching.

    1. I do hope the either/or thing goes by the wayside. And actually, I don’t like synchronous learning at all for what I do. I am much more focused on how students interact with the material than with each other or with me. 🙂

  2. Omg, so true. I can’t imagine ‘teaching’ without seeing my students’ eager inch-square faces laid out in a homey grid, and I worry that my content won’t truly engage them without the exciting blur and garble of a *real* college experience.

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