Why I Am Returning to Teach In Person This Spring
This upcoming spring semester, I will be teaching my Beren students in-person. I did not make this decision lightly. These are the most uncertain and trying times we have faced since WWII, and we’re learning on our feet how to operate, with no clearly correct course of action. As educators, it has always been our duty to help our students navigate the changing world around them.
The tremendous stress this past year has put on us all raises new and daunting questions. How do we accept our new normal while still remaining optimistic that there will be better times ahead? The nature of mankind is to think about and plan for the future. For college and university students, this is especially true. Creating plans, determining next steps, and, yes, even dreaming, are an important part of this stage in a young adult’s life. Now that we do not know what the future will bring, what do they do with that extra mental time and energy? Uncertainty turns into worry. Even world-renowned epidemiologists’ best answers, at this time, are “We don’t know.” How can we, as educators, guide our students when we don’t know what the world is changing into?
Over the past months, I have watched many of my students struggle through the isolation, the monotony. These same young adults, just last year, experienced their first exhilarating taste of independence as they left home for a gap year program in Israel or to join a university campus. I see these students now back in their childhood bedrooms, or in their family dining room, with little siblings running about, or in dorm rooms under a considerable amount of isolation. Human beings are naturally social creatures that develop, grow and learn through in-person interactions. Lacking this, something within us withers.
Over the past two semesters, I’ve come to see myself as a bit of a front-line mental health worker. My students are not only trying to address the same stress and uncertainty we are, but also, in a sense, have been forced back into their childhood; in a time when they are supposed to be spreading their wings and learning to fly, they have been put back into what must feel, at times, like cages. This coming semester, I look forward to welcoming back my students who wish to return to campus, while taking every available health and safety precaution. I want to attempt to do my small part to enrich their educational experience by trying to facilitate better, deeper and more meaningful connections through being in a formerly mundane environment: a classroom. For me, coming on campus is a small risk compared to the potential benefits for the students in my classes.
YU has done an extraordinary job, in a short period of time, of creating the infrastructure and training us professors to optimize online education. My faculty colleagues have been working very hard to be as pedagogically effective as possible, a task much harder online than in person. We mix up the modalities of learning, add extra content and block out our classes in small time increments to keep everyone’s attention. I am in awe of my colleagues’ ingenuity, energy and alacrity in creating such engaging online curricula. Too, I have been astounded at the many times my students have done extraordinary individual and team projects under the current challenging conditions. I firmly believe this current generation of young adults will find their best selves in this era and emerge to work for a better future for all of us.
My hope is that, like the Renaissance that followed the Black Death and the Jazz Age that followed the 1918 Spanish Flu, we emerge from this pandemic and step into an era of unprecedented creativity and growth. The human spirit persists. And, maybe, this new era will even have a jaunty jazz soundtrack accompanying the new golden age.
Mark Finkel is a clinical associate professor of management at the Sy Syms School of Business.