That New Semester Feeling
When I met with my first class yesterday, I took in a cleansing breath and said, “New semester energy. Can you feel it?”
Some of them nodded. They could feel it.
I love that new semester feeling. Anything is possible at the beginning of a new semester. It’s a clean slate, a chance to start over.
When I first started teaching years ago in grad school, I was warned, “in Spring, they all become a$$***es.” On some level, there is some truth to that statement. Spring is when they know enough about the system to try to play with it. They feel more confident in their living, working, and classroom situations, so some can become a little more smart-mouthed. And even though Spring Break falls in the middle of the semester, it’s often the point where some Spring students check out.
But that was Florida on a campus where the clubs were always open–even during hurricanes– 4/20 was celebrated as heartily as Independence Day, and there was a literal circus training class on campus. It was awesome and fun, but many students honestly chalked up White Trash Wednesday club events as a valid reason to miss class on Thursday.
But I like the Spring semester for the same reason that students might become jerks: the students are a little more confident, so I don’t have to explain every little thing all the time, Spring break is a welcome respite, and however, they play the system is their business, especially because I run my syllabus by my in-house attorney, Hubs, before I post it.
Spring is great because this is the season when students actively choose to learn from their mistakes, much like me.
This semester, I am teaching four classes in a row on Monday and Wednesday in the same classroom. I love this schedule. Yesterday morning I parked right at the building where I taught and didn’t leave that building until I was done.
Teaching four classes in a row usually works like this: I am bumpy and fast in the first lecture; in the second lecture I slow things down, but I’m not as smooth in my delivery; in my third, I’m a little goofy but I am nailing it as far as timing and engagement; fourth class, I call my lunch bunch because we’re the only class in the hallway and I am hungry at that point. I am especially goofy in the last class.
Yesterday, started like most first days. I immediately spilled coffee on myself getting out the door. I found something to listen to on the drive, picking a new story from Audible. When I made it to my classroom, students lined the halls – always early on day one – waiting on instructors to unlock the doors. I see some familiar faces. I teach the freshman intro writing class in the Fall, and some of them take the next level class with me as well. Once I told a student I was flattered they liked me enough to take another class with me and they replied, “It was actually the only one that would fit into my schedule on this campus.” Well, I’ve always appreciated their honesty.
But I can feel that new semester feeling walking down the hall of the gathered students. Unlike my own children who must be pried from the bed with a crowbar when they return to school, these students are awake, alert, and ready.
I already spotted the same players with new faces. I have my best friend group sitting front row. Every semester I get a set of young men who are obviously best friends and work together as a team. They never stopped talking for the whole 50 minutes. After class, I told them I need them to stop talking but I prefer it if they would sit up front as opposed to my last semester duo who sat in the back to whisper and giggle the whole time.
I have a romantic couple. They seem to be under control. Other instructors have told me about teaching couples before – the handholding, the shared notes, the pet names, the covering for each other. One even told me that not only did they have a couple but also had to witness the awkward tension of their breakup. I have been fortunate to avoid that level of drama. On the other hand, one member of the couple was a student I had last semester. So, it feels like when you invite a friend out for coffee and when you get there, you learn that “Mark really wanted to come, too! That’s okay, right?” Sure. Why not?
The student who is intimidated by all forms of writing has already reached out and asked if they can come to office hours every week. Another student immediately started to dissect my extra-credit offerings. One told me they liked my boots.
And then there are the students who physically exude a vibe of wanting to be anywhere else than our classroom. This is the problem with required courses. They know they must take the class, but they don’t want to take the class, and they will only put forth a minimal effort. I kind of feel like Ted Lasso and think, “I’ve got 50 minutes to win you over.” but for my own sanity, I do my best to ignore them. However, I was already triggered by one who–on the first day–sat and streamed content on his phone the whole time. Students: if you sit on the back row smiling down at your phone the whole time, I know what you are doing! I announced that I would walk around with a basket and collect everyone’s phone like we’re in high school if people plan to sit in the back row and stream content the whole class. Which is a mistake. The more manipulative tactics that an instructor practices, the more inventive students become to circumvent those practices.
For the most part, the Spring semester is when students want to do better. They don’t know anything in the Fall. To borrow a phrase from Hubs –they don’t even know what they don’t know. So, after they get that first semester under their belt – and their first end-of-semester grades – that’s when they make the choice that they don’t want to struggle anymore.
I asked the question, “How many of you resolved to do better with time management this semester.” Hands went up all over the class – over multiple classes.
Even I want to do better with time management. I want to avoid getting sucked into their needs, to establish firmer boundaries, and to stop saying yes to every interesting project that I see. I resolve to not stress myself out over grading.
And at the beginning of the Spring semester, all that feels possible. It feels like with the right plan, with the right mindset, and with the right determination, anything is possible… even convincing a student to stop streaming while I am talking.