Back to school

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(Photo by Dick Schmidt)

I am one of millions today… millions of kids and teachers who are starting their school year (and will likely finish it) at home—not to mention their poor parents who’ve been dragged into home schooling like it or not, or their partners and families who have to listen to (some of us) bemoaning a learning curve that, at this point, looks vertical. As in mountain-high, there’s so much to learn.

And if that wasn’t enough, Zoom crashed this morning on two coasts.

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s the pandemic that put us here in the first place. Oh, and fires in California sending smoke as far away as Kansas. Devilish fires that yield a blood orange sun through air so thick the experts are saying that no one should be outside. At all.

And yet I suited up as if I was actually going to drive to Sacramento City College—in a skirt even. As if had to contend with the horrible first-week parking that gets all of us cranky before we ever step into a classroom. I knew where I’d scope out a likely faculty spot, if I went early enough. I’d hike to my classroom and up the stairs to my second-floor office, bidding good morning to those already there, working away. And I’d put down my book bag, haul out my big container of tepid tea (because I drink tea at any temperature) and look at the piles I would’ve already set aside for each class I would head into that day.

I’d print the roll sheets for each class and gather some blank 3×5 cards that I have every student fill out with basic contact information on the first day. I’d put all that into the fresh new file folder I’d made for each course. And a couple of minutes before class started, I’d pull my pile of books and folder into my arms and a ready-to-write purple ballpoint into my hand, and I’d head down the hall to the journalism classroom.

It was only five years ago that journalism and photography moved to the second floor of  a new building, and, in the first month, saw the college suffer its first shooting death at the edge of campus. Our journalism students covered that like pros. One of those former students, who has been working in television ever since, also finished his bachelor’s degree and just got a job as news editor at our local NPR station. Another one of those students produces an evening news program at a San Francisco TV station.

Last semester a group of three of our journalism students took on the most ambitious reporting series we’ve seen at our college—documenting in 14 stories, videos and podcasts how social and economic factors derail Sacramento City College students in their quests to complete their educations. And yet so many of them do, slogging through life challenges that most of their professors have never had to endure.

They keep on keepin’ on, and this is what keeps me keepin’ on. They inspire me, the old dog learning new tricks in this all-Zoom age of online teaching. Me, teaching four classes in “real” time, while doing two more remotely. Two classes of students I’ll never see. Not sure how I feel about that since, like most teachers I know, we get jazzed about what we do by seeing the faces of our students light up with comprehension… or puzzle into confusion. We love it when so many of them have questions at once—they’re so eager—or struggle to figure out a concept and then beam relief and walk away with a smidge more confidence in their abilities and smarts. Because they are smart and bright and beautiful. It’s my job to show them that.

Though we came home in March, many of us college teachers simply told our students what they had to do to complete our classes, trying to make things as simple as possible. I was not teaching synchronously online. I did do five writing groups a week, though, between March and the end of August, so I got major Zoom practice. But after more than 30 years of teaching in classrooms, I will now see between 20 and 40 people per class in tiny little rectangles onscreen. And another bunch and another and another.

I hope I can engage them as well remotely as I think I do in the classroom. (One of my good friends who has been coaching many of us in online teaching techniques over the summer pointed out, “What makes you think you were doing such a good job live?” That made us all think.) I hope I do well for them. Because, if all goes according to plan, this will be my last year of full-time college teaching. I hope to retire by next summer.

None of us ever expected to see the end of the world as we knew it, no matter where we find ourselves on the educational spectrum. But I know I will miss their actual faces, students wandering into my office at all hours because that’s how we roll in journalism—if we’re on campus, the door is open. I will miss turning from my computer to see someone with a question, a problem, a joke or just coming to say hi. (I love it when they come to say hi.) But I’ll still get to watch them progress not only in class but become more confident, competent writers and editors, more thoughtful media consumers and, some of them, media professionals.

For this is the new world, baby, and it’s about always being willing to be vulnerable in front of students, knowing that we teachers can’t possibly know everything, of owning this beginner’s mind that puts us back into an I-don’t-know-but-I’ll-find-out place. I look forward to learning new tricks in the online teaching arena. I have no doubt that, as always, my students will teach me as much or more than I do them. Lucky, lucky me.


About janishaag

Writer, writing coach, editor
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2 Responses to Back to school

  1. Connie Raub says:

    Oh yes, Janis you are lucky! Not everyone gets the opportunity to see growth and vision for the future that teachers see. Yes, it is a challenge, but what a reward! As you say, your students always teach you more than you teach them. We will never know the impact of our efforts, but that is part of the mystery and trust that is thrown out to the world in wild abandon to hope the seeds will sprout and grow. Those seeds grow in us as well and make us better. Yes, this year will be harder than some other years, but you are up to the task. I applaud you, your energy, your wisdom and your fortitude. Keep the faith! Love~Connie

  2. Dick Tracy says:

    Just wear your mask, wash your hands, vote by mail….

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