Ten Things I’ve Learned by Teaching (… a lot).

I recently accepted a faculty position. This is a thrill and a dream come true… an office, insurance(!), a wonderful program, energetic students, course material I love… it’s a great gig and an amazing privilege.

However, like most academic positions, there are a few strings attached. First, the teaching load is 4|4, meaning I teach the same class four times in the Fall and again, four times in the Spring. No TAs, graders, or team. It’s a lot, and surprisingly not the minimum as I know other departments have 5|5 and 6|6 teaching loads. Secondly, my position is not tenure track; it’s a one year contract. This means I started applying for positions (a full time job in itself) in August when the “season” began. The position offers a taste of what an academic life would be.

I also realize this is an opportunity to get a head start on creating sustainable classroom habits. I have given careful attention to how teaching one course is different than teaching four. Below are a few of the lessons I’ve learned. I am sharing with the hopes they’ll help you, whether you are teaching one class or ten.

1. CARE. “Ms. Laney, you care about us?”
It was a Friday morning after a particularly “celebratory” Thursday night downtown. I live close enough to be kept awake by the music and shouts of Fraternity houses (and had finally fallen asleep despite the loud playlists and laughter… around 3 am). I was legitimately concerned. There are always screams and police lights, not to mention the groups of dressed up youth running across Main Street at all hours of the night. I had shared with the students that they shouldn’t drive (after drinking). “Even if you are walking” I stressed, “walk in groups and take care of one another… it’s dangerous out there”. The class seemed to be genuinely surprised that I was concerned about what was happening on a Thursday night. Granted, this is outside the scope of the classroom, however, the ability to assess power, recognize intersectionality, and create a community eager to discuss “tough” subjects of race, gender, poverty, and privilege within the classroom requires that I engage with the whole student. And I do care. We create a community in the classroom. I am honest about caring. This is a feminist, nontraditional practice. By being open– I care about place, power, knowledge and yes, you– the classroom typically opens up. This doesn’t mean students automatically care, but it is one way of fighting back against the banking system of education readily employed by many.
2. LISTEN. We know students are listening largely by assessing whether they have understood course material. How do we “prove” we are listening as instructors? By listening to students, we are able to recognize and hear their needs, questions, and enthusiasm. How do we listen to students? If you are not already, having consistent anonymous exchanges with students is one way to begin this process. I ask students to fill out an index card with something they enjoy, something they don’t understand, and something they’d like to change about the course. The next step is crucial… read and respond! Because they are anonymous, this means the response must be an action. Perhaps students need notes, want less course work, or love your lectures. Let students know you read them and are working to make the classroom the best space possible for all involved.
3. PREP, PREP, PREP. I do not cook. Anyone who knows me knows I love to eat (Indian, Thai, chocolate chip cookies…), but the idea of preparing meals, enjoying them and then CLEANING UP afterwards is anxiety inducing to the point of losing my appetite. Like cooking, the classroom requires prep (and clean up if you want to keep the metaphor going). Because I am teaching the same class but the schedule requires assignments and discussion be broken up in different ways (some 2 days per week, some 3), Course prep is CRUCIAL. Keeping a running journal of topics we’ve covered, how far along we went in the lecture, and activities completed has helped. Preparing an extra slide or activity (just in case!) is always a great idea. Being prepared doesn’t mean (to me) having a 90 minute lecture printed with accompanying slides. Rather it means being prepared to learn what ever it is we set out to learn that day and figure out what it means within the context of our various fields and futures. Honestly, course prep is a thousand times more enjoyable than meal prep.
4. UP CYCLE. Often I feel as if I am “cheating” by revisiting texts and lectures. Learning to make life easier on myself and students has been key in juggling this intense cycle. It is totally OKAY to use the same project two semesters in a row– especially if you “fix” or upgrade the parts that didn’t work just right!
5. USE THE TOOLS. Canvas, Scholar, Blackboard, Google (everything), Apps, e-portfolios, special workshops and initiatives… use them and see what works for you! No need to reinvent the wheel! I realized –this semester– that Canvas will keep attendance. Long gone are the days of wrinkled graph paper in the bottom of my bag! If you haven’t reached out to university resources (the library, TLOS, museums, other GTAs or faculty) do so now!
6. WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS? This question can haunt the GTA at the end of the day. There are grant proposals to write, dissertations to defend, children to raise, parents to visit, dogs to walk… all on a meager income. Sometimes, taking a long walk and remembering that you are invested in your field, you know your field, and you have knowledge to share with others about your field helps. It doesn’t “fix” the physical hardships but know that you are good at what you do. Once you’ve grasped that the sky isn’t falling and you are doing a good job, let a fellow GTA know they’re doing okay, too. We are all in this together, after all.
7. LISTEN, AGAIN. Honestly, this cannot be over stressed or over utilized.
8. BE HONEST. I am sure this is going to haunt me on SPOT evals, but being honest (“no, I do not remember your name,sorry” or “nope I do not know the answer to that obscure question…”) and being honest about why I don’t know some things can take some of the pressure to know EVERYTHING off (“y’all, this is the 4th time Ive given this lecture” or “folks, that is outside my area of expertise, but lets do some searching and see what we can find”).
9. SO WHAT? Often, I feel bombarded with the hostile environment students are entering. The need to cover “all the things” hits hard. At moments like this it is very helpful to stop and return to the syllabus and course expectations. Revisit what this class is supposed to cover. Then create a check sheet for the items in the unit. Once I am on track and confident we are covering the crucial material I THEN ask “so what” and tackle big questions. This week those big questions are: “Why is the proclamation of 1763 important”? “What do we learn about racial violence from land disputes in the 1700s”? “What does the fiddle tell us about capitalism”?
10. TAKE CARE. For me, “burning out” happens when I cannot see a plan. I am a strategist. I do best when a line of due dates are in front of me arranged on color coded calendars with to-do lists for each one. Focusing on one sentence or one idea without broadening and expanding implications is debilitating. This has been one of the most horrible setbacks regarding my dissertation (but that’s another post). For me, taking care has is planning. Putting pressure on myself to complete things when others don’t. Self care is also the occasional new lipstick or grabbing a latte before office hours. Self care is not spending more than seven seconds to torture myself over the fact my lecture on social constructs was waaaay over everyone’s head. Self care is being honest and realizing I only have a year here, but the entire course of one’s life can change in a semester.

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