One of my former professors, a mentor, and the co-coordinator of our English Lower Division program, Dr. Kate Pantelides, teaches a course on teaching composition. Every semester that she teaches, she invites experienced TA's to come and talk to grad students enrolled in the course about the lessons learned while teaching. She calls the segment "If I Could Turn Back Time." I volunteered to participate because I love to talk about the things I've learned while becoming a teacher in hopes it may help someone else in their own journey. I'm convinced this is a lifelong process. It's like writing: you keep working on it, and working on it, and working on it, revising along the way.
I think it's important to take stock and reflect – for lack of a better word, on what works and what doesn't when you teach, with an understanding that sometimes this changes semester to semester (or even day to day). The day before I visited her class, my co-panelists and myself penned our lists of talking points, and these were mine—which I am going to talk about now in a bit of detail:
Lesson Plan, Lesson Plan, Lesson Plan
I confess that when I first started teaching (and for many, many years). I did not lesson plan. I didn't like Rubrics, either. I thought I could just freestyle everything and in the long run, it made me feel a lot less organized and structured. I have come to appreciate that a lesson plan, for me, is a kind of road map. Every night before I teach I take the time to go over my plan and map out how I roughly think the timing of the class is going to go. Then, when I am teaching, I make myself notes of what worked, what didn't work, how long certain activities actually took (they always take longer than I planned), or the brilliant “on the fly” ideas I have that come from my freestyle days. While I really do try to read the room, it does help to have a plan in place – and Lesson Plan helps not only the present Hillary, but future Hillary when she’s working out a course in the future.
2. Know that when you first start teaching, it is going to feel like that time you have to fill is forever—and you will feel a pressure to “deliver.” Silence that voice. Talk less, write more, and break your teaching into chunks.
I have a rule that, over time, I made for myself: no more than 15-20 minutes of “lesson time” (I structure these as mini lessons) per class. The rest of our time together is structure to allow for writing, skills practice, discussion, group work and activities—so that each class is active and dynamic. Note: not all classes have every element of those things, but every class has a mini lesson, discussion, and writing. Writing courses should not be not lecture-based courses, even if there can be an unspoken expectation (either from ourselves or sometimes even our students) that we have to “deliver” content. Writing classes should be about writing, right?
I think that can be a really hard lesson because sometimes it can feel like you're "making" students talk when it comes to discussion, or you're not sure what kinds of activities or group work to do. Talk to people, see what others are doing. Think back to former classroom experiences when you were a student for activities that worked (or didn't work and do the opposite!). A lot of teaching is experimentation.
3. Write to celebrate the act and art of writing and creativity – it does not always have to be tied to an assignment or learning objective.
I use Write into the Day, which I learned at the Middle Tennessee Writing Project, as my platform for this exercise. Before I implemented WitD, I remember struggling with always having these really focused writings that I’m not totally sure my students appreciated or even really liked. Once I introduced WitD, I felt that it gave my students such a breadth of opportunities to just write for the enjoyment of writing. Open-ended prompts, guided prompts, or things particular and relevant to their lives and the world they live in seems to make a much more focused connection to the actual act and practice of writing -- and my students tell me it's one of their favorite things we do.
4. Take time to develop a pedagogical purpose that matters to you. Until you figure it out, make a patchwork of pedagogies from your favorite teachers, mentors, or theorists that can inform your teaching until you decide the things that matter most to you.
I guess the main message here is to teach with a purpose: a goal for what you want your students to get out of your course, and a purpose for what kind of teacher you want to be and what kind of pedagogical structure you want to lend to your classroom. That can be a hard thing to figure out (and for me, it is always evolving as I grow and learn), so in the beginning, I borrowed things. I stole things. I wore other teaching styles of the people I admired like a coat of many colors – and it worked for me!
Another panelist said a very true thing-- that imposter syndrome, when you start out, is a real thing. I don't know how many days (years?) I quaked with fear at the mere prospect of teaching, and I can't remember who gave me the advice to just try someone else's style on for size until I developed my own-- but it helped me to gain confidence in my classroom. Confidence is key: every semester I get nervous on the first day. Every semester I make countless mistakes, I'm human, but I think that figuring out my goals and gaining confidence is something that came through borrowing and adopting and gradualling figuring out who I am as a teacher and what I want for my students to get out of their experience with me in the classroom. Give yourself to grow into the mantle of "teacher." It's not an overnight thing, and that's okay.
5. Finally, there will be bad days. There will be days you think “I am doing this all wrong, I am an awful failure, everyone is better than me.” Everyone has those days.
If you have them, it means you care, and that means you are doing things right. If you ever stop caring then you – and your students—are in a world of trouble. I take a few minutes to reflect on the success or failure of a day, assignment, or whatever -- after it happens, and then stop dwelling on it. There's no point crying over spilt milk, there's only you moving forward and figuring out how you're going to do better next time. If something fails (and it will some days-- a lesson plan you crafted beautifully may be a dud, an assignment you were so sure of may just produce an opposite effect, or you just may find that your students and you aren't meshing), then take a few minutes to take it in, experience it fully, think of how you can improve, and then let it go. Ask for help if you can -- talk to your mentors, talk to your peers, talk to the wall. But don't turn it into a self-shaming spiral or think it means you're awful: it means you care. Just keep swimming.