The Hardest Days to Teach

There are only a few days where I was so upset that I did not want to teach. The first instance was in grad school when my adviser told me he was denied tenure. The most recent was two years ago when my mother told me she had cancer. But those weren’t the hardest days to teach. Those “honors” go to November 9, 2016 in Chicago and October 29, 2018 in Pittsburgh—respectively, the day after the Clinton/Trump election and the first workday after the Tree of Life shooting.

We begin with Chicago. On November 2—six days before the election—the Cubs won the World Series. For the first time in over 100 years. In the 10th inning of game 7. After a rain delay. Coming back from a 3-1 deficit. For those who know nothing about sports, this is a level of drama a soap opera would find excessive. And on November 4 over FIVE MILLION people (or, as I prefer to think about it, roughly 1.5% of the US population) flooded the celebratory parade route. Not the city. The parade route.

Little got done during that time. Students, obviously, were distracted. But it would all work out. Thanks to the quarter system, finals were November 14 (the Monday after the election). That gave us roughly two weeks to get back to work.

Yeah, right.

I have read all of these, and know that in this pile lies the cure for both boredom and insomnia. [personal photo]

My entire life I simultaneously have been intrigued by politics and vehemently apolitical. I read everything from John Stuart Mill to Nate Silver. In my phone are the numbers of two state-level politicians/friends—one Republican and one Democrat. I spent the 2016 election night at a party hosted by a colleague (who, I might add, specifically thought my apolitical stances could be calming “if something goes wrong”).

I did not vote and I supported no candidate; again, I’m apolitical, not to mention I’m not one of the 538 electors and Illinois isn’t exactly a swing state. While I was surprised and hesitant that Trump won, I was relieved that with national tensions so high there were no reported assassinations—of either candidates or voters. While maybe we now wanted to make adjustments, we’d followed the process outlined in the constitution with respect to the electoral college. I trusted the checks and balances system to prevent any one person from having excessive power and I believed in the snail’s pace at which our government moves on any policy change.

I was sincerely dumbfounded by how upset others were. 11/9 was worse than 9/11. I arrived at work and comforted colleagues crying in my office. Academics on Facebook were cussing like rappers, vowing to flee the country and burn the flag. At 1:37PM my university’s president issued an official statement that began “No matter who had won last night’s election, all of us would have woken up with work to do.” For me that message was too little too late. I had already been barraged by students begging me to cancel or delay exams (remember: finals were five days away. There was no wiggle room.). I had already been vilified in class for not looking or acting upset, been subsequently labeled as a Trump supporter and had had classroom doors slammed in my face. I had already received a email “warning” from a student that because of my “handling of the election” (or technically lack thereof as I followed my pre-election pattern of not mentioning it) one of my classes was planning en masse to write negative course evaluations.

This experience taught me that I am expected to mention sensitive events and offer emotional support to students during class. Identifying upset students in class and later speaking to them privately won’t suffice. Thinking that those really upset would skip (just like those who have something else due, or who had to pull an all nighter, or who don’t like walking in the rain/cold) is illogical. Instead, I must speak on this in class, and include all in attendance. I have to acknowledge and through acknowledgment endorse the feelings of the most vocal—not necessarily the majority, and regardless of my own feelings or comfort. Imagine for one second that I actually had supported Trump. What sorts of lies (by omission) would I have had to spew to avoid the treatment I received (or worse)?

As I wrap up this story, please don’t misunderstand: I have zero problem whatsoever making myself available outside of class to any students who are having a rough time and want to talk. I have been a secret keeper, confidant, etc., to many students over the years, even if I disagree with their viewpoints and even without admitting that I disagree with their viewpoints. Being there for my students is a large part of my job, and I take my job very seriously. My issue is that my expertise is math, my training is in math, and my job specifically while in the classroom is to teach math; I feel extremely uncomfortable using class time to make non-math statements or lead active discussions on emotionally raw topics (on which I am likely far from expert and with zero advice from experts).

I beg our community: if these classroom discussions are a sad but true reality for us as math educators, then we must incorporate into our teaching seminars, our professional blogs, and any other outlets we have tools for leading these discussions and successfully maneuvering through these situations. We are trained as mathematicians and some also as math educators; we are not trained as politicians, sociologists, psychologists, or social workers. If we choose to wear those hats outside the classroom, that’s our prerogative. But if those are hats we must wear in the classroom, however infrequently or briefly, we need training.

Now to Pittsburgh.

The Tree of Life is a synagogue just off Shady Avenue in Squirrel Hill, an historically Jewish neighborhood. I lived three blocks away, and campus is exactly one mile away. The shooting, which was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in the U.S., began on a Saturday morning; at the time, I was walking down Shady returning from the grocery store.

Within minutes, admin cancelled all campus events and activities until further notice. They sent emails and texts warning everyone to remain indoors; the words “active shooter” were used. Within 24 hours, the University informed its students and faculty of additional psychiatric services available, planned a prayer vigil, and sent a list of suggested activities for instructors with Monday classes (THAT was definitely appreciated).

We added more office hours…[personal photo]

That semester, I was teaching intro to proof to over 300 students. There were 10 sections of recitation, run by a total of 8 teaching assistants. Eventually the team held 24 hours a week of non-overlapping office hours. The schedule was insane, as you can see in an early-on weekly calendar.

Notice too that one TA held regular Saturday office hours. Having read her email, she cancelled her office hours as the shooting unfolded. She announced this on our Piazza page, saying she hoped everyone was safe. Within minutes, students started responding anonymously. As they were already on campus couldn’t someone help them with their homework? And once the “all-clear” was given, a thread of “will there be makeup office hours” began.

I was in shock. I thought unanswered homework questions would be the last thing on students’ minds when their college sent an alert that a domestic terrorist was committing a hate crime up the road. This was the exact opposite reaction I was expecting, especially after Chicago.

I felt ridiculous comparing an electoral upset to a massacre. Even more generally, I felt silly comparing a scheduled event with a finite list of possible (death-free) outcomes to a surprise shoot-out with a double-digit body count. But still, I couldn’t help but compare the two events. I wanted to learn from the mistake I felt I made in Chicago by not (re)acting. I was petrified feeling I had to say something on Monday. I’m eternally grateful I had 36 hours to prepare, because even with the admin “pro-tips” I was at a loss.

Outside the library the Monday morning after. [personal photo]

A lot went through my mind as I chose my words. There were some students I was certain would be upset (including the president of the Jewish student organization, who was on my roster). But as evidenced by my class feed, the only vocalizations had come from students who had seemingly already “moved on.” What if those actually upset skipped? How does the size of the class at 300 affect what I’m supposed to do or say? What if my class were the third class of the day for a student, and every single class prior had said something? Or if no previous class had said something? What if my class were the first of their day and I was establishing some bizarre baseline?

These are questions we all need to think about.

I still have no clue how to get through these kinds of teaching days. I don’t wish them on anyone. I’ll end with what I said to the Pittsburgh students that Monday:

“OK, it’s time for class to start. I have to say that no one ever tells you how you’re supposed to teach on days like this. Know that I am here for you. Know that I can help you find others who are here for you. Be aware that a significant portion of our community is hurting. And—if you’re all willing—I’d like to take a moment of silence to show respect and support for those who are suffering.”

This entry was posted in bias, classroom design, classroom management, community engagement, elections, mentoring. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Hardest Days to Teach

  1. Mitch says:

    My concern in November 2016 was not an electoral upset but the feelings of safety and belonging for members of our community who were threatened by domestic terrorists emboldened by the outcome of the election. That was one of the few days where I sat down in my calculus class. I didn’t lead a discussion; like you, I felt unprepared for that. However, I reminded students that a few of their fellow students and many of the staff upon whom the students rely are people of color who will be feeling unsafe. I simply asked them to be kind to one another and let them know I was there for them if they needed to talk. Then we got back to math and normalcy.

    I’d put one other category of teaching day even higher on the challenge day scale: the day after a student dies by suicide. Especially at small colleges, it’s likely you’ll have multiple students who knew the deceased. When they’re a student you’ve taught, it’s even harder. This is the most likely tough event many of us will have to teach after, and it would be great if we had some professional development to help prepare us.

  2. Amanda says:

    I think your statement after the shooting is thoughtful and shows a clearly good intention. However, I would encourage you to examine your feelings about the election. Being apolitical is a privilege that many don’t have, and calling the election outcome death-free is naive at best. Most early career professors were children or young teens when 9/11 occurred, and I don’t think we can judge if people were more or less upset then than in the 2016 election (most likely, people hid their emotions from you.) The election has real, very scary, consequences for many academics—including the many who can no longer travel to the US, and the risk of losing research funding. To not understand this comes off as naive.

  3. Nicola Ciccoli says:

    I lectured the day after 9/11 in a class of 250 students.
    I lectured the day after Nasirya bombing, which was the highest loss of Italian soldiers since World War II (and, yes, I am Italian).
    I lectured the day after Bataclan shooting, which seen from Italy was almost “across the corner”.

    In each of these occasions I felt I should say something to my class. The elephant in the room was unavoidable in any case. Pretending to ignore it would have sent a wrong message: “being students/professors and human beings are two separated things”.

    I do not think that any course would help us in finding words in such occasions.
    Sharing our feelings is all we need to do and it is something we have to learn on our own, earlier in life. Of course, as in any moment of grief and sorrow, we want to unite, not to divide, and in my heart this is the only “rule” I try to follow.

    After 9/11 I told my 250 students that the number of people in the room was approx. the number of people just in one plane. And that while in the next days they were going to hear a lot of words discussing responsibility and revenge for the moment they should look at each other to get just a small glimpse of the amount of pain that event has brought on Earth.

    After Nasyriah I told my much smaller class of 20 that they were the same age of soldiers killed and the same age of terrorists killing; but also of the same age of the Middle Ages students that gave birth to the idea of University in Bologna. It was in their hands to choose if they wanted to become builders or destroyers. I was against Italy’ participation in the Iraqi war and I knew my class was split on the topic: no one complained.

    After Bataclan I told my students that there are days in which being a mathematician is very difficult and you’re simply not able to keep fear and sadness out of your mind. And we should never forget that as mathematicians we work for humanity, not for fomulas, and there is nothing wrong if at times you remember that emotions can come first and before understanding.

    I said this and other things that I do not remember and maybe what I wanted to say is lost in the poor translation or was lost even earlier, somewhere between heart and mind. I simply had them know I was deeply moved by such events. In all these cases I had to take a break before starting lecturing to give time to people that were emotionally too upset. In each of these cases some students came to me afterwards and thanked me, just this, just “thanks for what you said”. And I keep such words between the most rewarding moments of teaching.

    I agree: there are better days for teaching. But those are the moment in which they can connect with the human being rather than with the professor; just look in your heart.

  4. ADRIANA SALERNO says:

    Hi, Kate. I want to second Amanda’s comment, all of it (the statement after the shooting was good, and shows that you have good intentions, and that the “apolitical” stance is a privilege not everyone has).

    First, and following up on Amanda’s comment, I think there is no such thing as an “apolitical” classroom — we can decide to accept the politics that are imposed on us or not… but those are still there. Those of us with privilege can *pretend* to be apolitical because the “politics” or what have you favor us in some way. So, going back to your point, I agree that this kind of thinking should be normalized and standardized as *part of* any STEM and specifically mathematical training, especially for those of us who will be interacting significantly with students.

    Second is the question, what do you do after realizing that you have to deal with something you have no training for? Allow me this mathy analogy: suppose that you are a Number Theorist, and somehow your research leads you to having to understand Physics. But you never took any physics classes, you haven’t thought about this meaningfully, and somehow you are required to think about it even though you would prefer not to. Do you quit your research project? Probably not. Do you email the most famous physicist you can find and ask them to explain their field to a number theorist? You probably shouldn’t. How did I deal with this in my own research? I found collaborators who were willing to work with me and learn other things from me in exchange (a true collaboration, not just taking), I started reading some of the main resources for people like me, I started googling any term I didn’t understand.

    I think research mathematicians are capable of using these strategies to learn a whole bunch of other things. For example, once I realized that not only was being apolitical naive (to use Amanda’s wording), it was also really harmful for students, I started collaborating (talking to people who want to work through these ideas with me), reading the main resources (and not, say, emailing every prominent mathematician of color and asking them to teach me things in their nonexistent free time), and googling. I also started listening to people and changing my behaviors accordingly (no one is perfect, and we all have our blindspots, but we can always do better).

    My main point here is, the part where you call for the community to do things differently seems a little passive, when in reality you are a smart person with good intentions, so you really do have the power to do this. If you don’t want to do it by yourself, find others who want to work through this with you, without taxing people who are already overtaxed. Anyway, I just wanted to add this, because I think we (mathematicians) forget that we are actually capable of learning difficult things besides math.

  5. Dave says:

    Writing a blog like this is an odd form of communication – completely unlike what we do as teachers. Writers like you take time to pour their hearts into posts, and then send them out into the virtual world. They see a few responses (posts on social media, thoughts in the comments section) but are completely unaware of most readers’ reactions.

    I’ll leave it to others to comment on the content of your post, but I wanted to let you (and other readers of this blog) know some of what happens when a post like yours appears in a prominent place like the AMS website.

    First, your piece jarred me. It made me angry. I worried about the damage it would do if read widely – especially to the many mathematicians whose immigration status, citizenship, and humanity have been increasingly under attack since the election that you felt so indifferent about. These are brilliant researchers and teachers who, in addition to the job that you and I do, also mentor most of the students of color and worry daily about how the hateful rhetoric and spike in hate crimes will affect themselves, their livelihoods, and their families. Now, in addition to that extra work, some of them will be reading your blog about how blithely you have been able to ignore those same issues. First, I worry about them.

    Then come the emails. Conversations start up among those mathematicians (largely white and Asian – so as not to add to the workload of those most affected) who have been tirelessly working on these issues for years: editors of the Inclusion/Exclusion Blog, folks who push for social justice, leaders in the mathematics community. How should we respond? Who should take the lead? Is something with this level of unacknowledged privilege and naiveté appropriate for an AMS blog? We strategize, circulate drafts, brainstorm responses – all the while ignoring the course preparation we would otherwise be tackling.

    And I imagine that you might wonder why you haven’t been part of those conversations, that flurry of activity. I can’t speak for others, but I’m concerned about your feelings. I’m pretty sure you didn’t mean any harm. You were probably writing from a place of concern, wanting to do better moving forward. These email threads are filled with worry about how you will react. Notice how critical comments start out with words specifically designed to soothe you?

    And if you dig deep enough, you’ll notice something else about our concern for your well-being. It’s another aspect of the same system which allows some of us (including you and me) to remain oblivious to oppressive institutional structures–if we so choose.

    I hope you choose a different path. There’s a growing group of mathematicians who are traveling that path and can help you find your way forward, working hard to make the mathematics community and the wider world a more just and equitable place. Please come find us.

  6. Daryl says:

    Thank-you for your thoughtful comments. I feel the need to echo the previous comments. I’m not American and don’t live in the USA; I’m one of those in the rest of the rich world who reads the news reports of what’s going on in the US (from the election of a manifestly moronic bully as president to the near-constant mass shootings) with horrified bewilderment. How did a country once looked up to around the world become such a dumpster fire? And I worry about the spread of this kind of lunacy to Canada – we know that no country is immune to populism driven by fear and hate. So it’s interesting to hear a perspective on these events from an American, aside from those reported by the news.

    One statement stands out:

    “I did not vote and I supported no candidate”.

    I am dumbfounded. There has surely never been in the history your country, a worse candidate for president than in 2016. Yet even then you couldn’t find it in yourself to take the small step of voting? Voter turnout in the USA is among the lowest of all democracies around the world. Maybe the adage that in a democracy, people get the government they deserve is correct. Maybe if more people voted, Illinois would be a swing state.

    Maybe your students picked up on your complacency in the face of a very real, clear and present danger to your country, their values, and indeed to all citizens of the world. I hope that you will consider taking your responsibilities as a citizen more seriously and that you will support a better candidate next time, and vote for that candidate.

  7. Alice Liebert says:

    Kudos to the writer of this most-original blog. Kudos for having the courage to discuss the proverbial elephant in the room—the need to provide discussion, training, and guidelines for teachers, young and old, who are increasingly finding themselves caught between a current-event disruption in the lives of their community and the responsibility for moving forward with teaching responsibilities. How far, how long, how much does recognition for the very real pain of individuals extend in the classroom? How are the vocally strong or emotionally vulnerable to be weighed against those in the class who do not belong to either group? If individual institutions are not addressing this most relevant situation, then where is it being addressed by the many associations and groups dedicated to improving instruction and the teaching/learning experience? What tools are being offered by anyone, anywhere, that a teacher can use to help get through these times—times, which based on the current trend lines, show no signs of abating?

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