The end of the semester, again

The end of the semester is always bittersweet for a college lecturer. Unlike elementary and high school teachers, college instructors go through a cycle of 16-week long relationships with different classes. I teach, on average, 4 to 5 classes each semester, with a total of 220 to 250 students per semester. It’s a lot of students to keep track of, a lot of grading, a lot of lecturing.
Twelve to fifteen hours a week, I’m in front of the classroom, trying to figure out the most effective way to impart lessons that range from Durkheim and Functionalism to how to perform sociological research to how different populations affect the environment; it’s a bit like being a stage actor, I suspect. During each class, I stand in front of 50 to 120 people, trying to engage with them. I ask them questions, give them information, sometimes I bare my soul with stories of my own experience that might relate to the lessons we are learning from the textbook. Unlike a stage actor, I don’t get applause to know how my presentation is going; I must rely on the small details of the students in my class. I look for the slight nod of the head, a smile that says, “ah ha, yes! I understand!”, and the raised hand, ready to be called on so the student can add to the conversation, or ask a relevant question. I relish the days in class when students have so many comments and questions about the topic at hand that we get sidetracked, and I throw my script out the window, and we discuss real-life sociology. But those days are few and far between, never often enough. Most days, if I get 20% of the class to contribute to a discussion, it’s a good day.

There are many students who never say a word in my class throughout the entire semester. They usually sit around the edges, every once in a while in the back of the classroom; never in front. But every semester, at least 25% of each class never speaks up, never talks to me after class, never comes to my office hours, and maybe most frustrating for me, is many of those students don’t give me the nod, or the slight smile, but that’s okay. My motto is, ‘as long as I make at least one person angry or happy or I kill the hopes of dreams of one student, it’s all good, and I’ll show up another day.’

By the end of the semester, or maybe even by the 14th week, most of my colleagues and I are exhausted by the hours in front of the classroom, the countless hours grading until 1 in the morning, tens of office hours with students discussing many aspects of a student’s life and often times, the struggles they face.

Honestly, teaching, of any kind, may not be physically difficult, but it is emotionally and psychologically taxing at times. By the end of the semester, we are all ready for a break.

But with the end of the semester comes angst of a sort. How do we say goodbye to our students? Unlike elementary and high school teaching, when the semester is over, we will likely never see the majority of the students we made a connection with again; it’s a bit of a loss each year. But more importantly for me, I ask myself, somewhere toward week 15, did I teach them what they need to know? Did they get enough from me? Did I make a connection with enough of the students? I worry, particularly, about those students on the sides, and in the back of the classroom: the ones who never spoke up.

And then, when the last lectures have been spoken, and the finals are almost over, it happens invariably: I start getting emails, notes in my office mail box, handshakes at the end of the final class, mostly from those students who didn’t speak up. “Thank you,” they tell me, and then give me a nugget of some sort, maybe a lesson they remembered, or a story that touched their heart, that tells me, they got it. They hug me, and say goodbye, and I tell them good luck, and I truly mean it. And I know that I’ll come back again, even without the applause, because they bring me cookies during finals week, and send me photos of their babies a few years later, and hugs when I see them around town, and they stop by my office, even years later when they’ve gone on with their lives. And that makes it all worth it.