Stumbling into my “authentic teaching self”

Image result for orangutan looking in a mirror

Photo by Masahiro Iijima

I stumbled into teaching, as I’m sure many of you also did. I never planned to be a teacher. Teaching wasn’t on the exhaustive list of careers I came up with throughout my childhood, which ranged from artist to astronaut. When I first moved to Indonesia after my undergrad, my intention was to study the behavior of wildlife and conserve them by convincing everyone else how awesome they were. Still, the thought failed to cross my mind that teaching was a way to do this. In my second job studying orangutans, there would often be schools groups or film crews visiting the research site that were interested in learning more about our orange ape relatives. As the resident orangutan researcher, I was often asked on the fly to speak with the group about orangutan behavior and take them out to observe the animals in the wild. After one of these visits, I remember a coworker offhandedly commenting on how well I spoke and interacted with the group. At the time, I equated this with teaching, which in hindsight was really just the tip of the iceberg, but I reflect back on this moment as the introduction to my “teaching self.”

I soon developed a role within this organization in which I designed, coordinated and lead high school excursions, volunteer programs and university field courses that focused on learning about tropical ecology through immersive experiences. I learned as I went along, through trial and error, adjusting what didn’t work based on the feedback I received from students. This was possibly the most authentic my teaching self ever was, blissfully unaware of all that I didn’t know regarding pedagogy or learning theories. Well the fairy tale ended abruptly when our organization started running field courses with an external recruiting agency. The head of the agency basically crushed my dreams of teaching the course, by saying, “you’re nice, but you don’t have the credentials to teach this course…you don’t have a PhD.”  I have probably dramatized this story over time, but his sentiment stuck with me. Instead of brushing this off and moving on, I decided that if I wanted to teach at the level of higher education I needed formal training. How could I know what I was doing was effective? These were intensive, immersive experiences for these students, what if I was leading them astray? I resolved to do this PhD thing, but I vowed to seize whatever opportunities I could to learn about pedagogy and improve my teaching!

And…here I am now. Two years in and, prior to this class, definitely questioning my decision. When I arrived at Virginia Tech and started Taking my first course, it was not the excitement charged, fulfilling experience I remembered. For one thing, the course (Dendrology) involved instructing students how to identify trees, and I couldn’t tell an oak from a maple. This was not the same world where I could comfortably identify a gorkum from a grumph (both orangutan vocalizations that sound disgusting if you decide to check them out). Nor were students that excited to hear what I had to say. I had forgotten about the world of undergraduate degrees and the begrudging nature of students completing required courses. I was spoiled by students embarking on these trips of a lifetime in Indonesia. I learned and developed a passion for tree identification during the course, but most importantly, I learned that many early career professors and graduate teaching assistants will have to teach material which they have little knowledge or experience with. I was out of my comfort zone and failing at portraying a confident, prepared TA.

This has still been a challenge for me to overcome, as I came from a place where I felt so comfortable sharing my knowledge of tropical forests. Instead of embracing the challenge, I feel my teaching self has morphed into this inauthentic, “fake it til you make it” alter ego. I keep waiting for some class or piece of advice from a mentor that will help me stumble back into my authentic teaching self. But after reading one of the readings for this week, I realized that there is no magic book or course that is going to help me overcome this challenge of being authentic (although this course has already re-inspired my passion for teaching). I will be uncomfortable at times and I will falter, but that’s ok. I should use these opportunities to learn and improve from trial and error. I should focus on my strengths and not force myself to teach the way the previous instructor taught the course if that doesn’t suit my style. I also shouldn’t limit myself to the confines of earlier syllabi, but let my imagination run wild with new ideas and improvements. Formal pedagogical training is important, but I am now realizing that allowing yourself time to reflect, explore and innovate in your teaching is even more crucial. Hopefully by following these principles and giving myself that freedom to learn and explore, I’ll stumble into my authentic teaching self at some point along this PhD journey.