Publication Date

August 18, 2021

Perspectives Section

From the Teaching Division

Teachers mark time in class periods, bell schedules, semesters, and even holiday breaks. August and September are months on the calendar, but for teachers, they are shorthand for “back to school.” However, after the pandemic upended so many of our classroom routines, what will “back to school” mean this fall?

What will “presence” mean for students this fall as high schools and colleges respond to students’ diverse needs and preferences?

What will “presence” mean for students this fall as high schools and colleges respond to students’ diverse needs and preferences? Kojo Kwarteng/Unsplash

We in the Teaching Division represent a state university, a liberal arts college, a community college, and a high school, and we each had our own unique pandemic teaching experience. But this column is neither a chronicle of what we endured nor an advice or best-practices piece. Rather, we want to share our reflections on what “going back” might mean this year, and in so doing, we hope to continue some of the candid conversations that teachers have already started about their values and classroom practices. We have been separated for well over a year—by six feet, by masks, and by our fears. We have found connection in Zoom squares, often imperfectly but sometimes remarkably effectively. Who are we after this rupture? What is the work of repair and reconnection in our classrooms with our students? What is this work with our colleagues? What did the pandemic expose about the way we work, the pace of our work, and the ongoing difficulties of balancing the professional and personal?

First, we acknowledge that “back to school” means very different things for our membership. Some of us have not been in a classroom since March 2020, while others have been teaching masked and in person, or in hybrid form, moving between human faces in physical spaces and human faces on Zoom. Others have been teaching online with success for years, well before COVID-19 forced the rest of us to “pivot to digital.” We know the pandemic was not as disruptive—at least professionally—for colleagues who are online veterans. The challenges and benefits of their teaching contexts are newly visible to those of us who primarily teach face-to-face. This diversity reminds us that all teaching is hyperlocal. We work in districts, cities, counties, and states that had different infection rates and, in some cases, vastly different political and public-health responses to fighting the pandemic. The national effort to vaccinate Americans has brought us closer to our prepandemic lives, but it is clear that the autumn of 2021 will not be postpandemic. Educators will continue to confront and solve their challenges locally.

Although it has dominated our thoughts for the last 18 months, COVID-19 may not be the main challenge facing teachers this fall. Budget cuts could affect teachers’ access to ongoing professional development at a time when they want and need it most, especially because they are yearning to process lessons from the past year with trusted colleagues and mentors—in person or online. There may be staffing cuts and departmental “reorganizations,” which will hamper the ability to deliver a quality curriculum. In many states and across all levels in education, teachers are facing new or intensified political scrutiny aimed at restricting their ability to discuss complex histories, including slavery and LGBTQ+ issues. Navigating this political climate amid the many other question marks of the fall return will not be easy for teachers.

We acknowledge that “back to school” means very different things for our membership.

The physical return to classrooms might be rusty and awkward for both teachers and students. COVID-19 protocols reminded us that teaching and learning can be deeply embodied experiences. All of us lack practice in sustaining real face-to-face conversations; teachers and students need to get used to fluid classroom routines again. Few of us have had the chance to cooperate as members of physical groups for over a year. Although we could see our students on Zoom, we could not make genuine eye contact. Many of us long to see a full face again. Masked or on Zoom, we lost the subtleties of the physical learning exchange—the myriad facial expressions and body-language cues of a learner; the hand gestures that could help us explain or enliven a concept; and the need to move, to walk away from a lectern or dive into the scrum of student group work. Some of us are craving the smell of markers and the sensation of writing on a whiteboard. At the same time, the material things of our teaching practice carry new meanings. The cherished textbooks on our bookshelf, the visual aid, or the prop we used may now seem strangely outdated.

How can we keep our memories of the past year alive without being burdened by them? Maybe we start by acknowledging that we do not have to pretend everything is normal this year. The empathy and awareness we prioritized during the pandemic have yielded new teaching methodologies and technologies that may well follow us back to the face-to-face classroom.

How can we keep our memories of the past year alive without being burdened by them?

Indeed, many educators have said they want to adopt permanently the changes COVID-19 precipitated. The more widespread use of online conversation technologies, for example, has allowed more students to share their thoughts without physical presence. What will “presence” mean for students this fall as high schools and colleges respond to students’ diverse needs and preferences?

Finally, what will “back to school” mean for us—the educators in all corners of K–12 and higher education? Talking about teaching requires us to talk about teachers, including acknowledging the treasured colleagues we lost to the pandemic and continue to mourn. The pandemic exposed the complexities and stresses of our own lives as we tried to be present not only for our students but for our families and friends. Many of us had to do our paid teaching work while serving as unpaid teaching assistants for our children’s remote classrooms. Many of us felt pressure to continue to conduct research and publish, advise graduate students, and serve on myriad committees. New PhDs entered an even more uncertain academic job market. Many of our colleagues were laid off, or released and then rehired, and it is still too early to know what the labor landscape will look like this year. The empathy and awareness we developed for our students’ struggles need to be extended to ourselves too.

Apart from being a challenge for educators, this year has brought refreshingly forthright conversations about teaching: how best to reach students; how to build community in online, hybrid, and in-person classrooms; how to teach difficult histories at a time of great national loss; and how to value teachers’ work. While none of us long to spend more time on Zoom, we have cherished these frank discussions and want to keep them going. The locality of our teaching conditions means we cannot reach for national one-size-fits-all solutions, but the Teaching Division would love to serve as teachers’ thought partner. We invite your responses in the form of new ideas for panels and roundtables for the 2023 AHA annual meeting in Philadelphia. We will find our way back to one another, starting in New Orleans at the annual meeting in January. We welcome your comments, suggestions, and feedback.

Coda: This article was written during the early summer months of 2021, when vaccinations and associated optimism were both increasing. Communities anticipated or already were returning to some semblance of normal. As we put the finishing touches on our syllabi, thoughtfully integrating new skills learned in the last 18 months and gleefully resurrecting tried and true methods of our face-to-face teaching of the Before Times, infection rates, driven by the Delta variant, are once again climbing.

K–12 and higher ed institutions are now wrestling with reinstating masking and other social distancing policies for face-to-face teaching, considering offering virtual courses once again, or mandating vaccination. The whiplash, both intellectual and emotional, is real. The quick pivot to move courses online, the quarantines after classroom exposure, balancing child and elder care, the financial upheaval, the disease itself—it is all poised to come roaring back. On the one hand, we know how to navigate all of this because we have done it before. On the other hand, the knowledge of just how hard it was brings its own new and exhausting dread. We note all of this to acknowledge that, as of press time, planning to teach this fall means planning for myriad contingencies. We once again encourage our readers to avail themselves of the many teaching resources provided by the AHA. And, finally, as teachers, learners, and lovers of history, we reaffirm our belief that we will soon be together again.

Shannon Bontrager is professor of history at Georgia Highlands College; he tweets @STBontrager. Alexandra Hui is associate professor of history at Mississippi State University. Katharina Matro teaches at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Maryland; she tweets @katharinamatro. Laura McEnaney is vice president for research and academic programs at the Newberry Library.

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