Awkward. That is the word many teachers and students in New Mexico might use to describe the classroom setting. The post-lockdown world has created a new set of difficulties and challenges for the academic community.
During this harsh two-year pandemic, with students facing a multitude of difficulties, returning to in-person classes has proven difficult for many students. Enrollment is down at many universities and high schools around the state despite the return of in-person classes, and professors are concerned with the quality of their classroom time.
In 2020, the struggles students faced were immensely different. There was a lack of supplies, reliable internet connections, exacerbation of social inequalities and isolation. One thing that has remained the same, however, is the foreboding presence of fear.
Classes are filled with a looming silence as students are afraid to reach their arm out and answer a question, or even to ask one. Professors call out to classrooms with the hope that someone will be brave enough to speak up first. This is a problem that has accompanied instructors for a long time, but has worsened within the last two years.
Anna Van Balen teaches Spanish here at NMSU. Before the pandemic, she was teaching English in México to third-graders. She made the switch to online classes there, but began teaching at NMSU in the spring of 2022 as a graduate teaching assistant.
“I remember being a shy undergrad student, but my classes were never this quiet. No one wants to be the first to try, or the first to guess. I try to be extra encouraging and helpful, but I think it just comes off as … lame, maybe?”
Van Balen says the difference is remarkable. During class periods when she makes her way around the classroom to help her students, sometimes students visibly jump out of surprise or shock. Students haven’t had their teachers checking up on them in a long time. Van Balen mentions that students seem disinterested in classrooms, and don’t realize they aren’t behind the safety of a black screen anymore.
“Some students have forgotten that they aren’t in a Zoom meeting with their camera off and that even with the masks, I can see them rolling their eyes or making faces. That’s a little bit disheartening,” Van Balen says.
Danielle Sullivan finished her doctorate in curriculum and instruction at NMSU, and specializes in trauma-informed pedagogy. While getting her doctorate, she was teaching at San Juan College in Farmington, New Mexico, during the pandemic and before. After graduating, she has been working at New Mexico School for the Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Sullivan expresses concern for her students as they reach a very developmental and influential time in high school. “It was a traumatizing experience for them because they had been out of school for so long and out of a routine. Those are key years of identity development and social development and they were just gone. My freshmen that I have right now — the last time they had a full normal year of school they were sixth-graders.”
While being at an arts charter school, Sullivan’s demographic of students is slightly different from public universities and high schools, but the concern is the same. “I have heard from other colleagues that [engagement] has been a big problem because they can’t even lead a discussion in their class because people won’t participate,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan urges everyone to carefully consider the socio-emotional fallout for our students in future situations involving school closures. “It’s not that we should stay open at all costs, but that we need to really carefully consider the fallout if we have future school closures.”