Continued from last week, here is the rest of my “top ten” list of lessons learned during my first teaching experience.
6. For goodness’ sake, be yourself.
One bit of advice I got before starting this class was that I should dress up – you know, wear a pantsuit or something – to establish an air of authority. I was told that I should embody a stern/serious demeanor to garner respect, especially because I am female and young.
Even if my department was not already quite casual (I love ecologists and their jeans and plaid and polar fleece), I am very much a jeans and t-shirts kind of person. I am also hopelessly goofy, unashamedly nerdy, and definitely inclined to get overly-hand-wavingly excited about certain topics. I am not an authoritative/dictatorial person. I like to converse, give-and-take, laugh, establish an environment of mutual respect.
Trying to disguise myself as anything other than exactly who I am would have made me incredibly uncomfortable and fidgety and would have been immediately picked out by students as a sham – they are not stupid and can spot a fake in a second. I suspect it would have backfired quickly and badly.
Instead, I was happy and felt at ease. I just can’t see the sense in creating additional stress by trying to maintain a false persona in an already stressful situation. (Plus, more than a few students expressed their appreciation for my excellent collection of nerdy nature/science-themed graphic Ts, so there :P)
7. Be OK with quality vs. quantity.
Confession time: I didn’t cover every single topic I set out to cover at the beginning of the term. But I am 100% completely happy with this, because what we DID cover was done thoughtfully, thoroughly, and included opportunities for students to really immerse themselves and be engaged with the material in an active and meaningful way. If I’d tried to cram everything in, we would have missed out on so, so much. Which brings me to:
8. The absolute best classes were the ones where I did the least amount of talking.
Even though I was working with a larger group of students (~90) we often did small group discussions or activities centered around word problems, news articles or journal papers that showed real-world applications of the theories or models we’d been working on.
Discussions and group work are fantastic ways to break up a lecture, wake people up and get them directly engaged in the material. Working in small groups or pairs enhances participation and provides opportunities for interaction for even the most introverted (and least likely to speak up in class) students. The buzz in the room during these short active sessions is fantastic, and it provides a neat chance for the instructor to go around the room, listen in and chat with students.
Very often I’d be completely blown away by the breadth of the students’ experiences, knowledge and insights and would find the class immersed in truly magical moments during which real dialogue, critical thinking and learning were taking place. In these moments my role became that of a facilitator or mediator – ensuring that everyone could hear what was being said, occasionally paraphrasing complicated ideas to echo them in simpler or more concrete terms, posing follow-up questions, or playing devil’s advocate to challenge students to justify their opinions or assertions.
Did these unexpectedly long conversations take away from some of the stuff I’d planned on talking about that day? Sometimes, yes; I was often able to incorporate most of the main points I wanted to cover into the discussion, but not always. Was it worth skipping a few minor details for the sake of these dialogues? Unequivocally, yes.
9. Sometimes you will screw up. Admit it, fix it, and move forward.
One day, I realized I’d screwed something up. Something pretty important, actually, that would be revisited and built upon in the coming weeks. I went through various stages: denial (no way!), horror (OMG, way!), embarrassment (OMGGGGGGG).
I got help, corrected my notes, and then the next class I put on my big girl pants and said, “I screwed up. Here’s what I told you – it was wrong. I’m sorry. We need to fix this before we move ahead, so here’s the correct information.”
And you know what? The universe didn’t end, no one made me feel bad, and we moved on to new things without a hitch.
10. Teaching is bloody hard, but:
“This is my favorite class I’ve ever taken.”
“It has been a blessing to have you as a teacher.”
“I never thought a math class could be fun.”
It’s so worth it.