I will never forget my first day teaching. It was a warm September morning, there I was, at 8 a.m. (Pacific Standard Time) sitting in front of my laptop, Zoom camera on, with only black boxes with names to take attendance. Two out of twenty students used pictures. I sat back and did my typical Latina habit of talking with my hands. No matter how nervous I was and how quiet my students were, I did my best to bring positive energy as there were essentially crickets in the background. I felt as though I may as well be talking to myself.
I pressed on, screen-shared, and explained to the best of my abilities in 50 minutes what was expected of them. I introduced them to Blackboard, went over my syllabus, and the layout of the week. Next I had my PowerPoint open when my second to last slide froze and the pinwheel of death appeared. I smiled, stopped screen-sharing and asked if there were any questions, then moved onto the introductions. I had to point out that in order to receive full participation points, my students would need to actually participate. To my relief, they were willing to share. Then class was over. I would not “see” them for another week, and they were on their own to complete the assignments for their first week. How is it that this could ever feel normal? I craved the opportunity to feel the energy of the room and see their reactions when my sarcastic side would come out on its own, as well as those “lightbulb” moments. Yet this was the reality of things. This was living amid COVID-19.
Ah COVID-19, you have managed to turn our lives upside down, causing us to scramble and struggle to find any semblance of normalcy. The “new normal” entails social distancing, working from home, remote learning, no traveling, quarantine blues, and ambiguity. As Christians we’re meant to have faith in God and His plan. Easier said than done. However, I still firmly believe that everything happens for a reason. And though 2020 did not go the way I originally planned, I did take advantage of an opportunity through my university: La Sierra University (LaSU).
I never pictured myself as a teacher, being a shy person by nature and somewhat of an introvert. And yet here I am, 27 years old and taking on one of the most rewardingly painful challenges I’ve ever experienced. I decided to apply to LaSU’s College Writing Instructor (CWI) scholarship program after realizing the financial aid and experience were too good to pass up. I had no previous experience teaching in a classroom setting, and was exceedingly nervous at first. Luckily, I received guidance from the program’s director and took a course about writing pedagogy, as per the requirement of a first year CWI. It took me a few weeks to get adjusted to this new schedule of studying as a full-time student and teaching.
I eagerly sprang up each morning before the sun rose, drank my coffee, and prepared to start my day. My heart fluttered and my stomach flipped continuously. I always took a few deep breaths and turned my camera on; my students logged in, cameras off. I put on a bright smile as the energy flowed out of me and 50 minutes were over in what felt like seconds. Surprisingly, as the weeks progressed, I was happy to find emails from my students with questions on the syllabus, the week’s assignments, or any other tidbits of information they needed. Though many were hesitant to schedule an appointment during my student hours (i.e. office hours).
At times, I would find myself able to relate to my students. I, too, was suffering from Zoom fatigue. And I could imagine how tired my students were with their busy schedules. It takes time to adjust to university life; I was adjusting to switching hats as I played tug-of-war. Student. Teacher. Student. Teacher. Thus, I did my best to remain understanding. I would always tell my students repeatedly that I wanted them to succeed, and though I kept specific due dates for them to learn time management, there were exceptions. This year, in particular, many of us were undergoing the toll COVID was taking on our lives.
As the days progressed, I devoted the first hour of my morning to puttin on the armor of God as I spent time in His Word and praying for the day’s events and for my students. I made sure to keep my weekly plan (for my students and myself) consistent: Monday Zoom sessions with students, and then later I would attend my classes; Tuesday peer review; Wednesday open book/open note quiz; Thursday discussion board was due; and Friday I would grade. I made sure my students had three weeks to write and revise their essays and to remind them that they would submit an electronic portfolio for 70% of their grade at the end of the semester. They would need to complete their reading, writing, and assignments independently. Zoom sessions were used to check in on their progress, go over the layout of the week, have a mini lecture, and participate in activities.
I was pleasantly surprised to find one student who turned their camera on, and another uploaded a picture, so I knew what they looked like. I wanted to jump out of my seat with joy. I also noticed several students resonated with the quote I had on my syllabus, a quote Stephen King said about writing: “The scariest moment is always just before you start.” I knew I had reached my students when they acknowledged it and I wanted to do my best to encourage them, and urge them to better their writing, even through a computer screen.
These students were eager to learn. Even if they were working full-time jobs, attending on scholarships for athletics or maintaining a high GPA, or managing work and study. I was amazed at the maturity of this group of students, and after reading their first couple of essay submissions, I was falling in love with their writing. I found myself smiling at the authentic and entertaining voices these writers had, whether they realized it or not. I was appreciating the opportunity to help them find new ways to express their thoughts and lending them advice when necessary. I never believed in lecturing at students, but rather the idea of existing as a coach while the students took on heuristic learning, which works especially well with online courses.
I was most impressed with the class camaraderie. Each student was cognizant of their feedback as they posted positive and encouraging messages to one another. It’s amazing to see in times of these unfortunate circumstances that the decency of humanity still exists. These students are passionate, driven, focused, and yet they’re managing to balance their responsibilities as they transition from the roots of adolescence and are slowly blossoming into young adulthood. I pray my students see the fruit of their labor and will come to learn something new about themselves. I am proud of the work they put into their writing efforts, and I hope they will be proud of their growth as this semester comes to a close.
Teaching online may not be what we want to happen, but God has a purpose for everything. As Christians we persevere and with God’s blessing, we thrive. Being positive is certainly not an easy task and especially in these difficult times, we are faced with innumerable obstacles, and yet we cannot give into the urge to lose all hope, to be pessimistic. Like a flower which blooms in the small crack on the pavement, Christians stay rooted in their faith and soak up the Word of God to live a new day, trying to bring what beauty they can into the world. I found teaching into the void is my way of being optimistic and encouraging to these students. I found myself learning and blossoming into a confident person. Although 2020 was nothing like I’d imagined, I have been reaping the rich benefits of teaching to those black boxes with names of students who are ready and willing to learn.
Kristina Chavez is a graduate student at La Sierra University, earning her Master of Arts in English. Her hobbies include reading, writing, drawing, Netflix, and running with her German Shepherd Bella.
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