While I teach

My students come to lecture armed with backpacks and phones and notebooks and laptops and model kits and colored pencils. I bring a Mac and iPad and Crayon and connecting cords and laser pointer and wipes and hand sanitizer and paper and pens and a plan. The only thing weird are the masks.

They sit in pairs or alone with empty seats around them. I wipe the mouse and keyboard and podium and table before I pull out my gear. I hang my staticky coat on a doorknob and lean my umbrella against the wall. I pull at the ear straps to tighten my N95 and watch the clock so I start right at the minute. As the final seconds before lecture tick away I think about reactions and mechanisms and pop quizzes and resonance and formal charges and elementary steps and proton transfers. Everything in my head pushes COVID into a little corner. The beast shrinks down from an ogre to a mouse so I can concentrate on something else for 75 minutes.

I begin by declaring it’s time to start. I point out any visible noses in the room and remind those noses not to take in or give back any unfiltered air. I remind the snackers no food or drink in lecture (so they keep their noses in and stay protected behind their masks). I punch down the COVID pest again to make him tame and quiet, and I begin.

While I teach my brain does a dozen things at once. Focus on the material. Talk about it and why it’s relevant and connected to what we knew before. Write while I talk. Preview. Draw while I talk. Pause to let them catch up on drawing structures and mechanism arrows. Explain. Do an example. Read their nonverbal response (from just their eyes, eyebrows, and foreheads). Clarify with colors. Ask for questions. Think about answers to those questions by trying to tease out the misconception from the five words of the question. Answer what I think the question meant. Thank the student for asking the question and provide other details about other possible misconceptions. Advance the slide. Start the next topic. Check the time. Find the password for the pop quiz. Think ahead to what’s next, when is the exam, how far should we get today, is there time for another example? should I show the whole mechanism or just talk through it? is there time for students to try a problem? is my TA getting this idea for the recitation follow-up and quiz? did I remember to take a picture for contact tracing? have we laughed yet? should I let this class get ahead of the other class? call out the slipped mask under the visible nose, provide a more complicated example and work through it, provide another and ask them to help me work through it, provide another and tell them to work together, show the answer and ask for discussion, wonder who is paying the tuition for the kids who are playing on their phones and whether those payers know their student does not pay attention at all in class, give the pop quiz, make a silly comment to make them remember something important, smile behind my mask while they laugh at me, check the time, teach one more concept, look ahead to the next lecture, declare that’s all the time we have and have a good weekend, thank them for coming to class, pack up while answering last minute questions, remember COVID (looming and relentless at my shoulder), wipe the podium and everything I touched, wonder when cleaning supplies will be provided so I don’t have to bring my own, remember why cleaning supplies are important, hope the spread was minimal, tighten my mask, pack up all the entropy I created, clear out for the next professor, wonder if those plexiglass sneeze guards are coming soon, check email on my phone while I walk back to my office and read about more sick students.

Teaching in person is the riskiest part of my workday. I leave each class certain I have picked up the virus and am now contagious. I tighten my mask and share less than 5% of my breath so I don’t spread potential sickness to my next class. And I get tested every week.

It’s rough out there, but we’re doing it.

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