As educators, even in normal years, it often seems as if every moment of our lives from September to June is spent in front of an audience. Not just an audience — an audience of teenagers, who are mostly kind and caring, but for whom even the tiniest morsels of their teachers’ private lives can cause a feeding frenzy.
I remember sitting in the auditorium on rainy days in elementary school, constructing elaborate soap opera-worthy dramas as I watched the teachers interact with each other during lunch supervision. At the time, I believed that I was being covert, that the teachers had no idea their every move was being watched so carefully. Now, of course, I realize that being in the spotlight is part of the job.
I have low-level social anxiety, which may be surprising for a teacher who choses to interact with a hundred students every day. But the truth is that I have no problem being the center of attention, as long as that attention is within my control. I can choose my words carefully and set my facial expressions to match. I’m a walking teachable moment, for better or for worse.
In normal times, I also had the ability to hide from scrutiny for a few moments, to relax into who I am when I don’t have to think about how others see me. Some of my most difficult moments over the past few years have happened during the school year, and I couldn’t always take time off to deal with the health scares, the deaths (both sudden and expected) of loved ones, or the normal emotional wear-and-tear that I’d experience. I could step outside for a moment to collect myself during an anxiety attack, or call on a neighboring colleague to cover my class for a few moments if I needed to splash water on my face.
Once, while I was proctoring the PSAT a few years ago, I took a restroom break and tripped spectacularly on the way. All of the students were inside, and there was no one around to see it. It was utterly exhilarating in a way that is, frankly, embarrassing to admit.
I think that’s why I’m so exhausted at the end of every day. As soon as my classes start in the morning, I feel as if I have to be 100% “on” at all times. And, while “on” me is pretty close to the real me, it’s definitely not the same. There’s no way to mumble something under my breath that only a choice few will hear, or to exchange sarcastic side-eyes with a student who shares my sense of humor. Ironically, although distance learning has brought my students into my home, I often feel like the wall between us is sturdier than ever.
After all, one of my favorite things about working with teenagers is the unexpected twists and turns a class conversation can take. I feel as if we’ve lost our flexibility and our long-form improv has turned to a scripted affair that is steadily leaking energy with every “Okay, let me share my screen” and every “Oops, I think you’re on mute.”
One of my colleagues in the district counted: it takes between 50 and 100 clicks of the mouse to post an assignment on Canvas, our new learning management system. It doesn’t exactly feel nimble.
And I feel as if I’ve turned into something of a talking head. Literally: my students only see the top half of my body, and I find myself yammering on and on trying to coax my students to unmute and participate in a class discussion. With their cameras off, I feel a million miles away from them, putting on a show for no audience.
A few weeks ago, I stood up during my AP English Literature class for the first time since the school year started. I wanted to diagram something for them on the white board my husband and I installed on the wall of my “classroom.” Upon standing up, I immediately tripped and almost knocked my whole precarious setup to the floor.
They saw everything. One of my students called it “One of the top 10 disasters ever caught on camera.”
Overwhelmingly, instead of embarrassment, what I felt was relief. “Well,” I said to them, “Now you know! Now I don’t have to pretend to not be the kind of person who trips over nothing!” For a few moments, and for a few days after, I felt like myself with them. Maybe, when we finally get to meet each other in January, they’ll actually recognize me when they walk through my door.