Liminal Transitions

liminal transition

A Crisis of Teaching Identity

I coped really well with pandemic life for 14 months. I was productive in new ways that embraced who I felt I was becoming. And I finally started to at least feign some level of comfort with this new title that has been regularly thrust upon me – expert. But with the lifting of restrictions came the great unknown. With the unknown came anxiety which I hadn't felt before. Did I know how to live in this brave new world? Could I ever get back to the joyfully extroverted person I was? Or did I want to? Or could I forge a new social personality, one that enmeshed who I was before the pandemic with the person I seem to be after?

Yet the questions weren't just about my social identity, they were also about my pedagogical identity. Who am I as a teacher post-pandemic? Before the pandemic, I loved teaching face-to-face (F2F) classes – the collaboration with students in face-to-face classes was assumed to a degree because we all inhabited the same physical classroom on a regular schedule. When the pandemic lockdowns occurred starting in March 2020, I taught exclusively online for 16 months. And while I had taught online for fifteen years before, this was a new kind of online teaching – one that was more draining, more fraught with issues and less satisfactory overall to the teaching/learning experience I had known.

This is not to say that online courses are lesser – the research so far has shown that online courses are just as good, if not better, than traditional F2F classes [1]. But online classes can be designed, implemented, and evaluated well or badly, just like F2F classes can. Both online and F2F courses have explicit and implicit assumptions. One of the major assumptions made in F2F courses is collaboration by proximity; in other words, because we occupy the same physical class space at the same time, we collaborate with one another in the teaching/learning process. Online courses require those assumptions to be stated more explicitly. And the more explicit I made the assumption of collaboration during my pandemic online teaching, the more my students either really bought in or really didn't. This realization that students may not choose to buy into my collaborative teaching/learning process was simultaneously enlightening and depressing because it felt like it partially undermined my teaching identity.

But it also reaffirmed what I already knew – my students were human beings with intense and complicated lives who make choices daily to commit to certain learning experiences and not others. And all of that is totally OK.

A New World

But knowing that my students were taking my class to either deeply learn the material or check a box (or sometimes both) required coming to terms with a reality that I have, in fact, embodied at times in my own student journey. I too have been guilty more than once, even recently, of taking a class simply to check a box on my way to a degree. From my lived experience and the knowing that grows from that experience, I also recognized that each student's relative enthusiasm and motivation regarding learning in my class was directly tied to a goal for their college journey. In general (but not exclusively), deeply learning the material generated more enthusiasm and motivation for my course and checking the box generated less enthusiasm and motivation. That dichotomy reached its apex during the pandemic, and while we could have extensive discussions about Carol Dweck's work with growth vs. fixed mindsets [2], more students seemed to make the choice deliberately and consciously than I had seen before.

During pandemic online learning, I had to reflectively contemplate the upfront honesty students were willing to share. How many times did I hear from students "No, I really don't love chemistry…in fact, I don't even like it", or "I know I need to learn this material but I can't get past (so and so)", or "Here's the list of traumatic things that just happened…", or "I need more time to learn this"? How many times did I see my students make what seemed like bizarre choices regarding their learning, time, and mental health needs, only to realize later that those choices were not bizarre at all? My students also seemed to understand that their assumptions needed to be more explicit, and, if I was willing and able to really listen, an entire world of connection was opened. And that world was enlightening in so many ways.

But that world and the knowledge that came with it also deeply affected my own life.

If I wasn't a critical pedagogue before…

My journey with critical pedagogy has evolved over the last decade [3], redefining my personal pedagogy to center students and their own learning journeys more effectively in the classroom. I was really glad I had a head start on this transformation before the lockdowns because the pandemic required us to teach differently – to be more present and more oriented towards our students in ways I never had been present and oriented before – and it required a great deal of affective work.

But the pandemic changed all of us in other ways too. I have never seen the level of burnout in my peers or myself as I have during this time. We have worked hard, perhaps harder than we ever had before, with little to no acknowledgement of this work in terms of communication, money (like pay increases), or time. We have learned and become experts in new technology (to the point of being disillusioned by it [4]), tried new ways to build online community [5], worked to spice up our teaching via synchronous video [6], all while grieving the loss of what was and what could have been. Our affective work, including listening to and being present for the trauma-filled lived experiences with our students [7] while dealing with own trauma [8], became overwhelming at times. And yet we plodded on, trying to achieve a satisfying teaching/learning experience in the midst of pandemic life, while we sat with the revelation that satisfactory may mean something different than it did before.

Coming full circle

Being a teacher during the pandemic was a transformative experience for so many of us. We embraced pedagogies of care [9] and tried to strive for greatness, or maybe just survival (which is also OK) in our new virtual class environments, all while dealing with our own day-to-day lives. And we did survive, but I don't think anyone I know came out of the pandemic unscathed. The scars are real and we are learning to accept them.

But we need to decide who we are now that things are returning to "normal", especially because "normal" was an illusion. We know that "normal" did not work well for so many.

In terms of my own pedagogical journey, I think I'm going to try to remember the joy of interacting F2F with others, including my students, while trying to keep much of what I learned during the pandemic. I'm going to continue to strive for new ways to connect and communicate, because I believe these two verbs embody what teaching is. And I'm going to sit in liminality with the parts of me that are still becoming, waiting patiently for resolution and evolution.


1. Castro, M.D.B., Tumibay, G.M. (2021). "A literature review: efficacy of online learning courses for higher education institution using meta-analysis". Educ Inf Technol, 26(2), 1367–1385.

2. Dweck, C. "What having a "growth mindset" actually means." Harvard Business Review. January 13, 2016.; accessed June 29, 2021 

3.; accessed June 29, 2021 

4. Caines, Autumn. "Video conferencing offers an illusory sense of unilateral control over conversations". December 7, 2020.; accessed June 29, 2021 

5.; accessed June 29, 2021 

6.; accessed June 29, 2021 

7. Imad, Mays. "Leveraging the neuroscience of now: Seven ways professors can help students thrive in class in times of trauma". June 3, 2020.; accessed June 29, 2021 

8. Imad, Mays. (2021). Transcending Adversity: Trauma-Informed Educational Development. Educational Development in the Times of Crisis 39(3).; accessed June 29, 2021 

9. Bali, Maha.; accessed June 29, 2021