The Radical Leads the Lambs Out Of The Wilderness: Six Pieces of Random Advice For The Novice Teacher
In this post at Center of Gravitas Gayprof tells a story about having been diagnosed as color blind by a school nurse when he was but a wee Gayprof. Since the nurse explained nothing, and told him to go home and tell his parents, Gayprof -- assuming that this was merely a stage on the way to complete blindness and wishing to shield the parental units from this tragedy -- kept it to himself and merely suffered in silence until Nurse Ratched had the wit to call his home. Isn't school great?
This caused me to think, in turn, about the most peculiar thing I ever got wrong as a child. On the first day of nursery school, perhaps as a way of staving off tears from the most delicate of us, the teachers would say every once in a while: "Your carpools will be coming soon!" Now, I knew what a car was -- I had arrived in my mother's big yellow Mercury. And I knew what a pool was: I swam poorly and was terrrified of water, for reasons that only became apparent many years later. So using all the deductive reasoning that I had access to at age four, I realized that a car, which had a small, manageable pool in it -- would be arriving at the end of the day, and I might finally learn to swim in that enclosed setting as I returned to my house. And yet a carpool did not arrive. My mother drove up at noon, loaded me and a couple other children in the back, and drove us all home. It didn't come the next day, or the day after that. My carpool never came. Gradually I forgot about it much like I forgot about a career in medicine, when I encountered a lot of young men in Biology 101 at Oligarch University who were clearly going to eat my lunch if I didn't choose another major.
The moral of the story is: there are all kinds of assumptions and knowledge we never share with people because we think it is obvious, and often we don't know what we are ignorant of ourselves because...we are ignorant of it. Capice? And I think that may be a condition of school more generally, where appearing to know what you are doing can be almost as good as knowing what you are doing. Think of all those students you have who use the word "discourse" repeatedly in a paper -- wrong -- but they don't know it is wrong because they have heard it in class so many times that they have forgotten that they were faking it and never knew what it meant.
This is why -- instead of diving right in and finishing my article on the sexual revolution this morning -- I am going to compile the Six Pieces of Random Advice for the Novice Teacher (drum roll, please. Crash of cymbals!) Has anyone ever told you that you should:
1. Ask your students who they are and what they want out of the course on the first day. If it isn't a required course for their major, ask them why they are interested and why they registered for it in the first place. If it is a small course, go around the table; in a larger course, have them write for a few minutes, then go home and read what they have written. It's hard to teach well if you don't know your audience. This also gives you a chance to make personal connections in the first few weeks. Scenario: you are lecturing in your twentieth century survey. You have writtten into your lecture notes: "Charles took a course on the New Deal last semester and wants to know more about the rise of the state." You pause, look up, and say "Now, the segregation of federal buildings during World War I is a critical statemaking moment -- Charles, where are you?" Charles raises his hand. "Charles," you say,"I'm going to need some help from you. What do I mean when I say 'the state?'" You dig what I am doing here? You give Charles some authority right off the bat and you demonstrate to the class more generally that you are aware that they have valuable knowledge and you want them to share it.
2. Never keep it entirely to yourself when a course is not going well. If you are in trouble in your class, tell a trusted senior colleague and get help immediately. Not getting help with your teaching when something is going wrong is a form of denial similar to looking up the rash you have on the internet and treating it with medicinal herbs instead of going to a professional to get it diagnosed. The rash might clear up, or you might have lupus. Same with teaching. Struggling in silence is a loser's game, even though you will be worried that you are exposing yourself unnecessarily. Not only can the problem be solved by putting fresh eyes on it, but far better for some colleague, during your next review, to be able to say in response to a couple skeezy teaching evals, "Yes, she came to talk to me about it, and this is the strategy we worked out."
3. Never give a writing assignment orally. Always write it down, and then post it on your course website or Black Board.
4. Always have a course website or Black Board if your university makes it available. I wrote a post about this ages ago, but students expect that course materials will be available on the internet to such an extent that they tend not to save paper consistently anymore. It is a fact, and it is not worth getting on your high horse and forcing them to save your course materials as if they were the Magna f***ing Charta.
5. Never take excess students, no matter how hard they plead and beg. New faculty should be teaching at the course cap or under, not laboring to serve extra students. And the larger a class gets, the more difficult it is to learn names, help students individually, or have a discussion that includes more than the five most confident people.
6. Keep your promises. When you make a commitment to your class, keep it, and apologize when you can't, because this injects a kind of reciprocity into the relationship that will make them more likely to keep their commitments to you. Keep your office hours, and when you can't, put a note on the door for when they will be rescheduled. When you get a set of papers, give them a date when the papers will be returned that is not too far away. Two weeks, max, I would say, otherwise you find yourself running into the next assignment. And if you don't meet the deadline, it is really fine to say you need an extra day or two: that said, don't be so stringent about giving a student an extra day or two either. One of the things students should be learning in college is how to deal with authority in reciprocal ways. In my view it pushes this process along to find ways to exhibit your human-ness that are not inappropriate, and you also need to recognize their human qualities so that they can be honest with you and not make dumb excuses for not getting their work done. And by the way -- if they like and respect you, there is a far better chance that they will learn from you, I guarantee.
Want advice on your teaching? Want to share a piece of advice or a frustration with others? Ask the Radical: tenured.radical(AT)gmail.com.
I am Claire B. Potter, Professor of History and American Studies at Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT. My blogging ethic is neither to name or to accurately describe individuals unless I am writing about a public event, or commenting on information already published about that person in a reputable source. Unless I note otherwise, situations, pseudonymous people and professional dilemmas described here are fictional. Uncivil or mean-spirited comments toward me or anyone else will be deleted, as will advertisements for products or services disguising themselves as comments. The Radical can also be found at her Zenith faculty page and at Cliopatria; scholarly and public writing can also be found here. The banner photo was taken from this page.
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