On My First Week of Teaching – A Practice of Patience (and exhaustion)

My first week of teaching was frankly exhausting. Many a faculty and post-first year colleagues told me it was going to be this way. I believed them, but then classes started.

I have gleaned two things about teaching from the first week of classes. Exhaustion comes from unexpected places and teaching is a practice of patience.

Exhaustion

In a new university with professors I do not know, with a curriculum I am still learning, and students I know very little about, teaching as an exercise in learning has taken on new meaning. The constant mental energy in learning names, looking at faces and trying to figure out if that stare is attentiveness or boredom is draining. Thinking about lectures for tomorrow and how those relate to what I thought I was going to do next week and realizing I didn’t come up with enough material for an hour and twenty minutes all serves to make for an exciting week.

In a way I probably knew all of this. I was fairly prepared that I was not prepared. But one thing I was not prepared for was the influx of information and the energy required to filter through all of it. Naively, I thought that this job was more of what I was doing as a grad student, thinking, writing, teaching. But what has really caught me off guard is the sheer amount of information I find myself filtering through everyday. E-mails from facnet, conversations among colleagues, possibilities of new books, questions about curriculum seem to surround me.

Coming in I was told, “don’t get involved with the inner politics too quickly.” So that was my plan, I was just going to sit back and let other people fight it out while I focused on my classes and getting my dang book done. But what I have found is that it is not that easy, because I actually have opinions about some of these things. Some of the issues are issues that actually have something to do with my future at this institution and will be a lot more work to insert myself into in a year or two. So perhaps I should just say a little bit right now.

But even more than actually having the conversation is the mental energy required to think about whether I should have the conversation, send the e-mail, look at that book somebody suggested. The process of just filtering the information is what I have found to be the most exhausting aspect of my first week. I am sure it will only be a matter of time until I become more adept at this process, but this was honestly the most unexpected and most tiring part of my first teaching experience.

Patience

As I suggested earlier, I think I am a pretty good teacher. I taught classes on my own was teaching assistant for A LOT of classes in grad school. While there I had the privilege of learning from some folks who I consider master teachers. But what I came to find in teaching my own semester (or quarter) long courses as opposed to summer courses was that a great deal of patience is required. I don’t mean patience for annoying students. My students have been really wonderful. What I found is that teaching my own course required me to be slow in making my point. I am coming to find that in order for the students to truly learn I need to let the course unfold. The structure of the course has to be pedagogical, informative, transformative.

This is a bit of a change for me because as a TA I was guiding students through another person’a land, so to speak. I was helping them learn the ebbs and flow, the patterns and indigenous life. I was a mountain guide whose responsibility it was to help students find their way and in doing so there were moments when I would need to etch out a foothold, or make explicit a path, point out what was important so they wouldn’t miss it next time. I learned a lot of important skills (the power of analogies and illustrations, to name two) in doing this and I think the idea of students learning through the unfolding of a class became embedded in the structure of my syllabi.

But what I found was that I was trying to be a TA to my own class. I was trying to tell students the significance of a point rather than guide them to it. Rather than being a guide in another person’s land, I had to help these students become at home in my land. This, I have come to find, requires a great deal of patience. Instead of answering the question, we read through the text. Instead of pointing to what will be said in three weeks, I am letting questions lay for a week or so to let the readings lead the student into a possible answer to their question.

For a person who became adept at guiding folks through other people’s land it is a strange thing to leave a question unanswered, to be patient and trust the structure of the course and the readings. So I am learning patience in this process. I am learning to trust my students and trust the work that I have put in to crafting the course. The prospect of allowing this process to unfold has become somewhat freeing because I know the questions will be answered in time and this process is important for the student’s development. Of course knowing the process works and restraining myself from “oversteering” has been the distinct challenge of my first week teaching.

I am sure there is a sermon or spiritual lesson in there somewhere, but I am just too tired to tease it out right now…

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