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.”

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