Starting the Spring Semester

I shared something on my facebook page earlier this evening, and I wanted to expound upon it a little bit in this space today. A friend shared the original post which was originally written by his dissertation chair, Dr. Colin McKenzie, Associate Director of Bands at the University of Southern Mississippi. Below is Dr. Mackenzie’s original post:

As we prepare to start the Spring semester, our students have been, naturally, at the forefront of my mind. I have a few thoughts for you, students, as we wade into a new academic term.

If you are like me, you are likely tiring of having the circumstances around which you are working labeled, it seems daily, as “unprecedented” or “historic” or any other number of words aimed at attempting to describe the wildly unusual and difficult times in which we find ourselves. Frankly, I kind of miss just regular old “B-flat” hard times. We all do. We are all getting fatigued by the need to be continually vigilant about our health and the health of others. And I can imagine that you are feeling that fatigue coupled with frustration and trepidation related to watching the adults who are supposed to be providing leadership for our country behaving in appalling ways.

The beginning of navigating a problem or situation is acknowledging that it exists – so there you go.

I provide you now with this encouragement:

  1. I haven’t seen a group of people working more tirelessly and fastidiously on behalf of others than I have healthcare workers and teachers. Your teachers are intensely dedicated to and focused on your success.
  2. The mental toll related to navigating life and your education through the pandemic is real. I recognize that it is and have been dealing with it myself. You must take care of yourselves and use the support structure around you (your friend network, your teachers, and the counseling services available to you) to be sure that you are well. Be sure you remain as rested as possible and eat as well as you can. Reach out when you need help. Especially given our limited in-person contact, it is not always possible to tell when you might need it. Be an advocate for yourselves.
  3. While acknowledging that the above is true, you cannot afford to use the continuing unprecedented times as an excuse for anything. Your teachers are willing and ready to work with and for you – and you have to meet them in those efforts. It will be easy to disengage and use as an explanation the ongoing pandemic. You cannot afford to do that.
  4. Your successful navigation of all of this will prepare you in unique ways to embrace and maneuver through your future.
  5. There is a light at the end of the tunnel! It may not be here as quickly as we all would like, but it is there.
  6. You will make it. My experiences with you have given me the greatest confidence in that statement. You will make it. None of us will make it alone. Rely on each other and your community. Help each other. You will make it.
  7. Mr. Rogers said that when bad things are going on, look for the helpers. There are always people helping. Looking for the helpers is a reminder that there is good happening no matter what is going on. I also encourage you here to BE a helper. Be a ray of positive light in otherwise difficult circumstances.
  8. In and amongst all of this, do offer up some support and encouragement for the people working hard on your behalf. They likely need it, even if they seem ok. Don’t forget that this includes the legion of indispensable support staff working to facilitate what we do who didn’t get the same long break that you did and could benefit from a kind word.
  9. Take a deep breath, pull your head up, keep your eyes forward and seize the opportunities which the new semester provides. I’m sure looking forward to taking the ride with you.

As I read his post, I was struck by how much it spoke to me and how much it said exactly what I wanted to say to my students. I believe all of it rings true for so many teachers and professors as we begin spring semesters, but #3 is the one that I wish I could get every single student to understand. It speaks to one of the things that I think is so extremely relevant to our students, as well as the world right now.

One of the things that I preach about to students (and my own children) is responsibility, and that is what I feel like #3 is talking about. 2020 was a rough year. I can honestly say that I don’t know of anyone who wasn’t affected negatively last year, regardless of how much they were trying to keep pushing. As a professor, I personally tried to extend way more grace about due dates as classes changed formats on a dime. My goal as we moved into summer was to try really hard to re-evaluate my summer courses to make sure that everything we were doing was very intentional and frivolous assignments were eliminated. Last fall was the semester we were going to try everything to teach hybrid, virtual, and face to face all in the same classroom while engaging students with the content and making certain everyone was meeting learning goals.

Fall 2020 Teaching

As I watched teachers all around do everything humanly possible to meet all the goals of every stakeholder while maintaining student relationships and supporting student emotional growth, I also watched teachers despair about not being able to reach a student. There were multiple conversations had about what else we could do to engage our students or get them to be more involved in the course or with the information. When I read this tonight, it reminded me of the fact that education is a 2 way street. We talk about this all the time when we talk about learning from our students, but there is another part to this. There is the part that students have to do. I can have all the office hours in the world, but if the students don’t come by or email or call and ask the questions, how do I help them?

Don’t take this that I am down on students, because that is not the case. I am really just thinking about the fact that right now, it doesn’t look like 2021 is going to be any less crazy than 2020 was. In March, as we moved to a new way of teaching and learning, it was okay to still be operating shell-shocked. In fall, we were still trying to figure out what it was supposed to look like as we moved forward. Now we are to January and the time is here. It is time for us to buckle up and move forward in the way the world looks and operates. We aren’t going back to the way we were in fall of 2019. In my opinion, that means that we have to grow and find a way to operate within the current constraints. I will still be giving grace this semester, but there is also something to be said for continuing to have high expectations for my students. We are past the immediate reaction to the happenings of the world. Let’s start working together to build what the next semester is going to look like and make it the best one ever.

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