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Tuesday was my first day back teaching after nine months away. I was on sabbatical last semester, so I missed all the drama my poor colleagues endured as they shifted—basically in one weekend—from in-person to online learning. Yes, I felt slightly guilty as well as deeply relieved to be spared. Well, I’m paying now, hiking up a very steep learning curve as I try to get back in the game. The game, of course, has changed.

I’m not complaining! I have a job, unlike many other people—including some of my now-former, much treasured and missed colleagues. I teach college, which is a breeze of a gig compared to what elementary and secondary teachers are facing. And I would like to give Calvin University a well-deserved shoutout for enormous dedication in providing support, preparing an entire campus and everyone involved for face-to-face learning this fall. Dozens of staff and faculty on campus deserve both medals and haloes for the work they did over the summer. I’m sure I don’t know the half of it, but I can imagine.   

Even so, gotta say, this week was rough for me. We’re teaching in unfamiliar spaces to accommodate distancing. Everyone is masking, of course. We’re teaching in person but also supporting remote learners. Mostly—as probably everyone can appreciate—I’ve been wrangling with the technology. I’m pretty good, and I learn fast, but one can only learn so much at once. Calvin has provided a million resources. But hoo-boy.

Technological things I learned how to do in the past five days (a partial list):
– set up channels in Microsoft Teams
– change my profile photo on Moodle
– record a class period in MS Teams
– get a document camera to project onto the wall in the Art Gallery classroom
– chat with others vis MS Teams
– create and read a survey in Moodle
– download large video files from my ipod to Microsoft Photos
– (there’s such a thing as Microsoft Photos? did not know that before)
– upload large video files from Photos to YouTube
– verify my YouTube account so that I am allowed to upload large files
– capture and post links from about 15 different sources to 15 different other online places

Technological things I’m still sketchy about (also a very partial list):
– setting up an ongoing class meeting in Teams
– capturing a link from that and sending it to the class
– understanding what’s showing on the screen in class and online and when and how…?
– setting up Moodle gradebook: I’m seeking professional help with this one

Thoughts I had after the first day:
– How many years till I can retire?
– Do you suppose my family could make do on just my spouse’s salary?

There were some low moments. Fussing with a very ill-fitting clear mask for 75 minutes of class—fun. That was an easily corrected problem, though. I put that thing aside and went back to good ol’ surgicals. And ordered a couple nice teacher masks with the “smile” window.

Here’s another thing I did not enjoy: watching myself on the recordings of class sessions, even for just a few seconds while I made sure the recording worked OK. I already tend to lie in bed at night going over awkward moments in class, stupid things I said, ways things could have gone better. Now there is a VIDEO RECORD of all my stumbles and stupidities. I always say that teaching is a daily exercise in failure and thus humility, and now: there’s solid evidence. Also, any illusions I may have harbored that I am not yet truly a middle-aged lady: gone, thanks to these videos.

Anxiety symptoms I’ve experienced this week:
– tensions headaches
– stomach pain
– trouble sleeping
– tennis elbow (not kidding—why? dunno)

Perfectly legal, doctor-prescribed, mild, small-dose pharmaceuticals used to manage these symptoms:
[This section has been hidden for HIPAA reasons.]

Nevertheless! Each day went much more smoothly than the last. Overall, I did OK. There were no terrible disasters. I believe some small amounts of learning did occur in my classes this week.

And the students were so wonderful: patient, cooperative, cheerful. I asked them all (via a Moodle forum, of course) how they were feeling about starting the semester. They virtually all said: excited, grateful, and worried about how long we can make this in-person thing last. They really want it to last. My half-dozen remote learners are cheering us on, even as they join online.

I also asked students what new skills they had learned during the last six months of the pandemic, with all its limitations. I found their answers charming and encouraging, even inspiring. They had kept themselves busy in productive and/or whimsical ways, whether in their jobs or stuck at home.  

Skills students reported learning during quarantine: 
– identifying native plant species
– welding
– playing the ukulele (two different students!)
– linocut print making
– restoring antique furniture
– lots of cooking/baking answers: breakfast burrito, fried chicken, empanadas, sourdough bread, fancy cakes
– wakesurfing
– knitting
– reenacting scenes from Pixar movies
– working as a Shipt shopper, bagging groceries
– studying Hebrew
– holding a squirming cat or dog for a blood draw
– mastering real estate jargon
– positioning box fans for maximum cooling effect
– tying French knots (an embroidery skill)
– driving a Skytrak

For some reason, these tiny glimpses into students’ lives over the past six months have cheered me up immensely. As Jennifer Holberg wrote so beautifully earlier this week, we professors have the privilege of meeting dozens of interesting new people every semester—young student-colleagues whom we get to cheer on, work with, and learn from. And she’s absolutely right: even after decades of teaching, despite the aggravations and challenges and upheavals that inevitably come, the joy of working with students never fades.

Thank goodness for young people. They’re coming of age at such a rotten moment, yet they keep seizing the day. Even through the fog of masks, technology, distancing, and numerous awkward protocols, I am riding on the students’ energy, their high expectations and high hopes. They are so glad to be back. They are so ready to learn. They are so eager for anything resembling normal. They are so patient with me.

This is a rough season for all teachers and students (and their parents, too—another topic entirely). Not to diminish people’s resilience and ingenuity in other walks of life right now—of course. Or to distract from people who are truly traumatized and suffering now. But do send some prayers, if you would, for everyone persevering bravely with the good and noble work of education.

Also: can someone please explain to me how to make nice, elegant, bullet-point lists on this WordPress blog platform?

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. My most recent book is Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth (Fortress, 2022). Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for the RJ blog as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.


  • Michael Weber says:

    To make a bullet-point list, create the list in a Word document, then copy and paste it into your blog post

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Thanks for soldiering on! Very nice piece here, Deb!

  • Sara Tolsma says:

    Right there with you, Debra!

  • Andy Rienstra says:

    Deb, thanks for sharing your present challenges of the classroom in such a folksy and captivating fashion. As you continue to learn please continue to share!

  • Elaine DeStigter says:

    While I am a relatively new reader of The Twelve, I find myself eagerly looking forward to each day’s essays. Being a retired educator, I especially enjoyed today’s piece by Deb Rienstra and Jennifer Holberg’s of several days ago. Keep writing; I shall keep reading. Thank you to each of you who faithfully contributes!

  • Hannah says:

    If you are using the WordPress block editor, you can highlight your paragraph blocks and convert to a bulleted list type block in the drop down menu. If you’re not using the block editor, the bulleted list should still be an option in the rich text editing interface. If all else fails, you can always use the (unordered list) html tag with (list item) tags around each item. I hope that helps!

  • Nate Johnson says:

    Thanks as always for the reflections Debra. Perhaps we should rename tennis elbow “PC-mouse elbow”

  • Henry Baron says:

    Oh dear, I can’t imagine myself in your shoes now! It strikes me as profoundly distracting from the focus on subject and student.
    But I have high admiration for all of you who must transition and learning how to make it work.
    Grace and nighttime somnolence.

  • Cyndi Boertje says:

    Hanging in here in IA too – now it’s after Labor Day and we’ll see where we are.

  • Arthur Tuls says:

    Hello Debra,
    As a retired high school teacher (Holland Christian, Bible and English), I was blessed by your writing. Brought back memories and also
    reminded me to appreciate even more the work of teachers, and all the fine students who blessed me regularly. Third, I also struggled with (ever-changing) technology and wandering through Moodle-land. I found it to be a blessing and sometimes a curse! So, thanks.
    Finally , a couple years ago I had to preach on Ash Wednesday and I “borrowed” some of your ideas about various fertile uses of ashes, beyond
    the notion of mourning and repentance. You enriched my thinking about Lent. So, thanks!

  • Karen Saupe says:

    Wait…you didn’t have to fuss with the Workday system last week? Slacker.
    (Thank you for the post…thank you for tolerating your colleague’s frustrated tech-related screams and rants from the office next to yours, and thank you for being a true blessing to your students.)

  • AMY TAYLOR says:

    Try the Logi vertical mouse — it helps my “tennis” elbow. It flares up at the beginning and end of each term, those times that I am using my mouse and pencil the most.


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