Even for teachers, back to school brings on jitters

Back to school jitters. It’s not just the students who have them or the parents dropping their children off at school for the first time. It’s the teachers, too.

In the past few weeks, I’ve loved watching my social media newsfeed burst with photos of back to school. Children standing proudly in their uniforms, with signs depicting their grade, turned into high schoolers showing a mixture of teenage embarrassment and pride. Inspiring feelings of nostalgia, those photos also remind us of the immense responsibility we take on annually in fall. 

Parents certainly recognize – and track – the growth and changes of their children with pride, and perhaps a bit of hesitancy as time moves quickly. And, so should educators. A friend of mine on Facebook posted an image not only of her daughter, off to school for the first time, but an after photo of herself, mascara streaming and red-eyed. For these reasons, I often find that early childhood educators have the most difficult jobs: parents entrust little lives, often at their most vulnerable, to these teachers. They become responsible for melt-downs and cheering up.

And the same is true for those in higher education. By the time college arrives, back- to-school photos may be out of vogue. Perhaps a freshman will have photos taken in their dorm room, but it’s less about back to school and more about living on your own. And yet, a part of me wishes that we take those photos.

The first week of class holds so much promise. Not only do I spend weeks of the summer planning and scheduling readings, but I look forward to the somewhat bleary-eyed (depending on the class time), and usually excited, faces traipsing into the classroom. In college, they have more of a choice – they’ve chosen your particular class, your particular section. And, of course, during the first week, they can also choose to withdraw. Perhaps that’s part of the jitters for college instructors – there is always the fear of excitement mingled with the expectation of rejection. 

As I’ve prepared for my first week and redesigned my syllabi, I’ve kept those back-to-school photos in the back of my mind. The joy and expectation alive, but also a hint of fear. Whether college students like it or not, those same images and expressions ring true even now. Because as a professor standing in front of groups of 20 students, that’s the same expression I see on many faces that stare back at me, waiting for “syllabus day.” Those school photos guided my assignment prompts, and my design of including blank stretches on the reading schedule. Those blank spaces will be filled in by students – what do they want to read? What are they interested in? Because, after all, it’s not just a teacher’s responsibility to educate; learning is a collaborative practice. Students must be engaged.

And I wish those first day expressions could be captured, so that when midterms and finals roll around and the physical signs of stress and anxiety mount, we can look back together and see that, for a brief period of time, there was excitement and care.

Dr. Heather Bozant Witcher can be reached at hbozantwitcher@clarionherald.org.

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