Shades of Learning

A teacher, toiling with the fear of handling a new way of teaching, and of misunderstanding her student’s needs, finds solace in a shared human experience amid dire circumstances…

by: Melissa Libbey

These days my classroom looks different. Blank, black screens stare back at me as I smile wide, welcoming my students to the day’s lesson. I miss my students’ faces smiling back at me from the other side of the room. Wide grins and bright eyes set on a rainbow of complexions — creams and beiges mixed with caramels and chocolates. I work at the country’s fifth most diverse university, and I am always proud of the students who enter my classroom each fall. 

Much like the United Nations, my desks are generally filled with different dialects, religions, and cultures. I am intrigued by my students’ backgrounds and upbringings. The mix of opinions and viewpoints never ceases to amaze me. But this fall, I sat down to welcome the incoming freshman class. I waved at my screen while black screens greeted me in return.

Gone were the smiling faces, the raised hands when I took attendance, and the smell of new textbooks and fresh notebook paper. I was happy to know that my students were safe from Covid-19 in their homes sitting behind their computers and I was also safe by hiding in my basement and only leaving my house for necessary grocery trips. After the class had reached its conclusion, I waved goodbye and signed off, only to be left with a large black screen staring back at me. 

What lingered wasn’t the excitement of a new semester, it was fear. Fear of handling a new way of teaching, fear of misunderstanding what my students needed, and fear of the future. Not only was the United States dealing with a global pandemic, but was also grappling with civil unrest that hadn’t seen since the 1960s. I needed to be there for my students, but the fear of not being enough plagued me. Why would my students want to be comforted by a thirty-year-old white woman who lives in the suburbs? I felt like a fraud when I told them things would be alright, and we would all be back to normal soon. How could I console them when most nights after watching the news, I couldn’t console myself?

Each morning I made sure I was on time, ready, with a smile on my face, to greet my students behind the black screens on my computer. I gave them writing tips, feedback on their essays, and I reminded them to take time for themselves. 

“Take study breaks. Listen to music when you are overwhelmed. Do some yoga after finishing an essay. Take walks outside and try to get some fresh air every day.” 

The semester moved along at its normal pace. I missed the in-class political debates I would typically have during election-time, but this year it only brought more stress to the country. Instead of discussing the issues and hearing their opinions, I reminded my students to stay strong. 

“Go out and vote if you can, let your voice be heard.”

Eventually, the semester came to its end. I reminded my students of registration, when their tuition money was due, and how to view their final grades. My students had always given me a purpose in the past. It always felt good to finish a semester, to know they were moving on with the skills I had taught them and would one day become productive members of society. They were future teachers, lawyers, health providers, and I enjoyed watching them grow through their writing. But this semester was different. I didn’t know what any of them looked like. I missed the kaleidoscope of colors I saw when I walked into the classroom.

During the last day of class, a student turned on her screen.

“Professor, this class has been one of the only things I look forward to each week. Thank you for always being so willing to help us.”

I smiled back at her welcoming face on the screen. 

Another student typed in the chat, “I have learned more this semester than I ever did in high school.”

The gratitude started pouring in through the chat. 

I thought back to one of the things we were told during a staff meeting at the start of the semester. 

“Remember that we need to have patience, understanding, and compassion during this time.” 

The Dean was right when he said I had been following those principles all along. But what he didn’t remind us was what it felt like when we were handed compassion in return.


Melissa Libbey was born and raised in Rahway, New Jersey. She holds an M.A. in English and Writing Studies from Kean University. She curates the SPOKEN! Podcast with her students and serves as the Managing Editor of the SPOKEN! Magazine which works with students to share their voices and perspectives. She is a creative nonfiction workshop leader for Arts By The People. Currently, she is working on a memoir and her MFA in Creative Writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University and she is a full-time lecturer at Kean University.

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