Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

Why I feel safer teaching online

Most of us who teach will agree that online teaching has not been easy. It created more work when we had to re-format or adapt everything we had spent years developing for in-person instruction and then put everything we would say or have students do online — often in multiple formats and while sending multiple reminders. Creating comparable learning experiences, particularly for hands-on activities like labs, sports, and performances, has been difficult — if not impossible. And don’t even get us started about answering all those emails. Fewer students have been successful in online formats. Of course, teachers also got shouldered with the additional work of finding “fixing” students’ issues with being successful online and got blamed for any aspect that wasn’t successful.

Plus, we missed our students. For many of us, online instruction took away the joyful, funny, human interactions that made teaching worthwhile and replaced it with the kinds of administrivia that we hate.

Although most of us probably would not have chosen to teach online, some of us — particularly female teachers and professors — are finding that our sense of physical safety has improved. Physical distance and the boundaries it creates have allowed layers of protection that were missing in our school buildings.

Image credit: Shutterstock

Clearer boundaries = less emotional labor and more physical safety

Research on female professors has found that students expect more emotional labor from their female professors and instructors — such as more accommodation, responsiveness, nurturing, emotional support, and “academic momism.” Not only do entitled students make more demands of female professors, but they are also more likely to get upset or even angry if their demands aren’t met.

The physical distance and recorded meetings allowed by online education have decreased students’ demands for emotional labor and unreasonable time expenditures. Even though I continue to be very responsive on email and always am willing to meet with students via Zoom or on a phone call, the marginal effort required to contact me to make an appointment or to stay after a Zoom class to have a chat, combined with the physical distance of the Zoom meeting and the fact that emails and Zoom meetings are recorded, has reduced inappropriate or toxic behavior.

Since beginning to teach online in March 2020 I’ve noticed that:

  • I’m not having students coming into my office crying because they didn’t do what I’ve been telling them to do all term and now have a low grade, which they are now (in the last week or two of the term) certain is going to ruin their lives forever if I don’t provide a way to help them “fix” the problem.
  • I’m not having students coming into my office, complaining about their grade or making other unreasonable demands for “accommodation,” and getting angry if I refuse to spend extra unpaid time and energy to find a way to “fix” the issue for them.
  • I’m not having students demand meeting after meeting until I give them what they want. Some students have learned how to counter a professor’s refusal to “fix” a low grade or to “accommodate” an unreasonable demand by making their issue into a battle of attrition. They will send an escalating series of longer — and often more personally attacking or demanding or TMI — emails. When their professors refuse to have a whole debate over email, the student demands an in-person meeting. If the in-person meeting doesn’t lead to the response they want, they ask to meet again, then demand another meeting to discuss it some more, then a mediated meeting with the department chair, then with the Dean, and so on until their professor decides it’s not worth the time or hassle and capitulates. Many administrators do not see the students’ requests for multiple meetings about an issue we have already responded to as manipulation or even bullying (even when the meetings basically give the student a forum to verbally attack the professor) and require us to we meet with students as many times as the students request. This is particularly the case with female faculty and instructors. So far, this has not happened now that I’m offering to meet with students in recorded Zoom sessions.

More significantly, not being a sitting duck in an office or classroom on campus is making me feel physically safer.

I’m not having to worry about mentally unstable students or former students who blame me for their low grade or lack of career success knowing how to find me if they decide to come back and get revenge. This has happened to faculty at UCLA, USC, El Camino College, Salem State College, and several other colleges.

As a professor in Teacher Education, I am training my students to work in schools, with children. While the vast majority of my students do well in my classes, I have had a few who were not able to complete the work required by the course. Over the past decade, I have had a couple students who may have had mental health issues. Sometimes they would decide that they “loved kids,” that “teaching was their calling,” and that teaching was going to be their career that would fix their lives and provide them with purpose and direction — but who were then didn’t have the wherewithall to meet the requirements necessary to pass the course. In some cases, they have openly blamed me for ruining their lives by keeping them from assuming their rightful place as teachers. One of those former students even later ended up facing felony charges for a separate incident that occurred off campus. Even with that in the local newspaper, my college readmitted them to complete their degree in another department (without completing my department’s license to teach). My campus did not notify me that this person was back on campus. Meanwhile, I was frequently staying late to work in my office or to teach evening classes, and sometimes I was the only person in the building besides the custodians. My office light was on and I was probably even visible from outside the building. Sometimes, my car was one of the only cars in the lot, and of course I was walking out to it alone. Even when I raised concerns about my safety with my administration, I basically got a shrug. Now that I am teaching online, I am no longer losing sleep about this kind of potential risk to my physical safety.

COVID-19 and the far-right’s political attacks on education have exacerbated the hostile work environment and threats to safety that many educators were already facing in the Before Times. Now, in 2021, far right political extremists have declared open season on teachers. Angry mobs rail against boogeymen their own “media” sources created, including “Critical Race Theory” (which isn’t taught in K-12 schools and is only taught in colleges in specific courses), vaccines, masks, and what they generally perceive to be “indoctrination” and “liberal bias.” On a personal level, about a year ago, I had a poster for the local paper look up my information on my college’s website and then “accuse” me of being “a social justice warrior” simply for being an education professor — even though I don’t even teach the class on equity in our classrooms. I’ve been outspoken on public posts and have gotten threatening messages online.

Political extremists are storming school board meetings, threatening school board members and administrators, and assaulting teachers. Teachers and college professors are getting attacked from all sides — from the people who demand that more racial justice be taught in classrooms, the people who view any discussion of racial justice as “critical race theory” and an overt attack on white people, the people who refuse to wear masks, the people who feel the school isn’t enforcing mask rules well enough, etc. It has made what was once an enjoyable profession feel like running a gauntlet. Online instruction is one way to sidestep some of the drama, unreasonable and unwinnable demands, and growing threat of violence that teachers face just for doing their jobs.

Not to mention that online instruction allows us to avoid the ongoing risk of infection by working in small, unventilated rooms, for hours a day, with young people who may not be following COVID safety protocols outside of our classrooms.

Cartoon with a group waving the U.S. Flag, a group waving the Confederate Flag, and a man saying, “OK, folks, today we’re gotta reenact a school board meeting.”
Image credit: Mike Luckovich, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 10/7/21

Legal Protection

In online classes, everything is recorded, time-stamped, and available online 24–7. My college has a rental program for laptops and hot spots, plus a waiver for people who can’t afford the rental fee. That means there is now virtually NO EXCUSE for students to say they didn’t get information or couldn’t access course materials. All materials and directions are written out and available online in our course management system. Class sessions are recorded and available online. All written feedback I provide to students is preserved in our course management system. Emails are archived. Zoom meetings with individual students are recorded and available for either of us to review. Combined with the spreadsheet I keep to log discussions with students, I can reconstruct all of my interactions I have had with any given student, for the entire time I’ve worked with them, and compile written evidence. This is helpful if a student or other person launches a grievance or other complaint or makes a politicized effort to start scrutinizing how I do my job.

Some professors and instructors may balk at the potential “big brother is watching” aspect of having every aspect of their teaching recorded and maybe even analyzed through diagnostics in a course management system or other program. But I am the type of person who dots her i’s and crosses her t’s. Moreover, I have taught middle and high school, so I am used to the transparency and accountability demanded of our K-12 teachers. Documentation can provide extra protection, particularly for those of us caught on the hamster wheel of teaching while female.

It is much harder (although I have learned not impossible) for students to blame me for what they didn’t do by saying that they didn’t know what to do because I had never told them. Now there is documented evidence that I had provided that information ten times in five different formats.

The few students who are used to banking on sliding through the cracks or pleading plausible deniability are finding that this is not possible in an online course. I can pull up the information they claimed they never got, cite the date it was sent or posted, and ask them whether they have been using the resources provided, and if not, why not. These tend to be the same kinds of students who liked to come into my office without making an appointment and then make big emotional displays or ask for endless meetings to pressure me to “fix” their issues for them (see above). Now they’re getting upset that they’re out of excuses and that a more distanced (and recorded) Zoom meeting doesn’t feel like an “adequate” way to address their concerns — i.e. it doesn’t feel to them like an “adequate” way to pressure me to capitulate to their demands. After “accommodating” these kinds of students for years, I have to confess that part of me is slightly amused. Strangely, administrators did not share this feeling. They had grown accustomed to maintaining enrollment numbers by relying on my unpaid labor required to put “fix” any grade or retention issues, and now had “enrollment concerns.”

Safer Physical Work Environment

Several years ago, I had to deal with six months of whiplash after getting rear-ended in a mile-long backup caused by a school bus as I was commuting to work. The kicker was that I was on the road at that time to get to an early meeting that a colleague who had often flaked on previous meetings had insisted on having a required committee meeting at 8:00 am, given her special needs as a parent and as an administrator. Then another colleague got annoyed with me when I missed the meeting because I was injured. On a separate occasion, a colleague suffered from a major head injury after she was involved in a multi-car pileup when she was trying to drive down one of the steep, icy roads that leads to our school. One of my previous cars had a dent in it for years after someone ran into it while it was parked in our student/teacher lot and didn’t leave any information. I was never able to afford to fix the dent.

Teachers know that the traffic around K-12 schools — populated with an unholy alliance of preoccupied minivan drivers, hurried school workers, inexperienced drivers (especially if you teach at a high school), and juvenile pedestrians — is particularly unsafe and stressful to navigate. Colleges have their own issues of rushed, self-involved young people rushing to and from the campus and jockeying for spaces in over-crowded parking lots. We’re all so used to the risks of driving that we forget that getting injured or suffering other damages while commuting is practically a matter of time. Skipping the commute has added an hour to each of my work days. Plus I have a lot less stress and a lot less risk. With no visits to the chiropractor or dents I can’t afford to fix as residual costs.

Teachers often work in unsafe or unpleasant conditions. Some schools have leaks, mold, no heat, no AC, etc. Even though I most recently worked in a newer building on a college campus, I had to teach in classrooms that doubled as storage space for multiple other people who taught in those rooms and where things were often stored in unsafe ways. Heavy items were crammed into storage closets. Random bags of rocks were shoved into nooks and crannies. The number of users defeated any attempts to organize the space or to follow any safety protocols. I’ve had an ER visit for one injury I incurred from having a camera tripod fall on my foot — narrowly missing a titanium plate installed during a previous toe fusion surgery. A separate injury from dropping a laptop on the same toe (I was carrying a pile of laptops to give to students who had not brought their own laptops into a room that did not have space for me to maneuver the laptop cart) resulted in two additional surgeries separated by months of physical therapy and a whole summer of being unable to walk more than a few hundred yards; now I am disabled for life. My college and my department have been unresponsive to my safety concerns. Working at home has given me far more control over creating a safe and comfortable work environment.

Teaching online has also created a more accessible work environment in that I’m not having to navigate a large campus, disabled parking, or cramped classroom spaces with my minor mobility disability caused by my workplace injury.

Productivity

While not specifically a safety issue, working at home has increased my productivity, which has created less stress, which has helped my health.

I’m not getting constantly interrupted by students from other classes or other people going from office door to office door, asking to borrow pens or other office supplies, asking for directions, needing help with some aspect of course registration, trying to sell me things, wanting to buy textbooks, etc.

Having meetings, appointments, and classes scheduled from early mornings through the evening no longer means I have to stay on campus all day — sometimes from 7:30 am to 9:30 pm. This means I can mix work at home and work at school. So I can run a load of laundry or do dishes or walk my dog instead of having to save all my domestic work for the weekend — which ends up not being a weekend, particularly when combined with the grading and course planning I didn’t get to do amid all the other on-campus demands.

I can more easily accommodate students who need to meet with me in earlier morning or later evening times without having to come in early or stay late. And oddly, I’m now getting fewer of those demands to meet at odd hours.

Conclusion

Teaching online showed me how unsafe, stressful, and often uncomfortable it has been for me — and probably many teachers — to teach in physical school buildings. Even though I am trained to teach in classrooms and miss teaching students in person, I’m now cognizant of the working conditions I and other teachers confronted each day. Like many teachers, I began to question what kind of environment I want to work in and whether I want to continue to sacrifice my own health and safety for my profession.

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Writing on the Wall

Writing on the Wall

Suzie Null is a former middle and high school teacher and current professor of Teacher Education. Follow her on Twitter at WritingontheWall @NullSet16

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