Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Changing my mind about teaching

The autumn term was a desert for me blogging-wise.  Ditto social life, reading novels, and keeping on top of basic cleaning (which might explain how goddamn ill everyone seemed to get!).  This was because I was teaching, something I hadn’t done for over a decade, and with a vision of undergraduates turning up keyed up on their reading lists plus an impressive range of online sources, I panicked and did the only thing I could.  I over-prepared.  
I spent my entire disposable income in second-hand bookshops, building up perhaps the least interesting library anyone has ever seen.  And I existed on 3 hours’ sleep for 10 weeks, something which I have learnt my complexion copes less well with than it did when I was a student.

When I taught before I was probably only a few years older than the students, and had done my degree in a different subject from my PhD.  So although I carried on with it for three years (I needed the money) I spent pretty much all of this time dreading the seminars and feeling like an imposter.  Ever since I’ve avoided teaching like the plague and immersed myself in the research side of university work.  But with redundancy looming I was forced to admit that I was going to have to rethink my attitude to teaching.  So I volunteered to do some teaching and set about girding myself for a term of deep grimness.

I wouldn’t say I exactly like being proved wrong, but … ok, in this instance I will.   I didn’t fall immediately in love with it.  It’s been a slow burn, with every time that a student’s face changed as they pieced information together, it felt that little bit better and more worthwhile.  What I’ve always liked about research is that you have this puzzle that you fiddle with fruitlessly until suddenly and unexpectedly it turns into a story.  This time around it was the story I liked about teaching, the ‘oh yeah’ moment when you came full circle.  I’m making it sound like some kinds of Mr Chips experience, which it most definitely wasn’t, but something had changed and it suddenly felt not all like a compromise but something compelling.  It’s not so much the talking – I am very shy socially and I’ve come to accept that’s not going to change any time soon.  But I’ve never really minded giving presentations because you can hide behind a script, and like with the research when you’ve got a story to tell there’s a deep relief in getting it told.  I think it might actually have more to do with now being a parent.  Let’s face it, as a parent routine mortification becomes a badge of honour, so there wasn’t really much that some nice middle class 18 years olds were going to do to embarrass me that my own children weren’t infinitely more skilled at. 

Mulling it over I think it might have something to do with people actually listening to what you’re saying!  As opposed to looking bored, obviously.  Or just being totally oblivious. Coats, anyone??  I have a tendency to start rambling I’m fired up, and my husband frequently gets that glazed look himself when I’m treating him to my take on something or the reactionary nature of most of what I hear down the schoolyard (lots of scope here).  So to be able talk at length about something you thought was important, and to have people listening intently, well … The last two seminars, I came out of those seminar rooms literally buzzing.  It was just the most unexpected sensation.  I’m never going to be the kind of effortless orator that were my favourite lecturers at university, but it felt like there was room for more than that.

The thing that stood out most was how evident class is, even within this group of kids who’ve got similar marks and who I’d assumed would be broadly alike.  But there it was, straightaway it was apparent which of them were from public school, because – surprise, surprise - they were the confident ones.  The ones who came into the classroom and sat at the front.  And effortlessly spoke up.  And I guess they will be the ones whose voices will be heard most throughout the course, and who will be the least hesitant about asking for help.  I’m sure they’ll go on to do the best in interviews and get the best jobs, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.  They’re the easiest ones to teach if I’m truthful - dream students.  But I think this is why I want to go back and do more. It was the couple of girls (and sociology is so, so overwhelmingly female it’s untrue) who didn’t seem to come from this kind of background, and who very gradually plucked up courage catch me after seminars who made me think about the way I was teaching. The girl who looked like she had the world at her feet, who came to tell me that it was the first time she’d plucked up courage to say anything at university (I wanted to cry for her.)  Those it would be really amazing to see grow over the course of the three years, to see becoming brilliant.  And what about the ones weren’t turning up, who could slip through the net in that critical first year with barely a whimper.  What were their stories?


So it’s a few months on now and I’m no nearer a contract or any sort of life security, but this term I’ve been given the opportunity to do some lecturing. Taking little steps.  I have my first one tomorrow.  Jesus it's less than 9 hours now, and I really should be practicing again, making the most of this child-free time.   But much as I could easily spend another week making sure I’ve got every angle covered, now that it’s near - at the same time as dying on my feet is a very real possibility - I’m too wired to really think of much else but getting in there.  Obviously I don’t have the slightest clue what one wears in these situations.  My dad used to tell me that he ruffled up his - already quite mad - hair before going in for a performance. Play up to (hide behind?) the stereotype of the eccentric academic.  Not sure that strategy’s going to work quite so well for me …

15 comments:

  1. Sounds as though you're doing a fantastic job. What stands out for me is how you've made a good assessment of the class - and their different (class-based!) needs, and seem equally happy to be accompanying the public school, confident types down their pre-destined path into success, and giving the more reticent students the support they need. Sounds as though they're all lucky to have you.

    But....get some sleep! x

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    1. Thanks Nell. I wish that was true, but I don't feel like there was anything like enough time to do both of their needs justice. 25 just seems too big for me for everyone to thrive in a seminar.

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  2. How I wish you were my teacher- you sound knowledgeable and passionate- an irresistable combo to me! I am socially shy, and last year saw me take part in to panels at blogging conventions- something so outside my normal comfort zone, but I am so pleased I did it. Turns out I find that slightly easier than a one to one conversation with a stranger- odd really!

    Perhaps a peculiar hat if you dont fancy the ruffled hair? Hope it went well, am sure it did!

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    1. I would never have had you down as shy, I bet you are brilliant on panels, hopefully I'll see you doing your bit on one one day! I know what you mean about it being easier to talk to strangers, not sure what that's about either.

      I went for black in the end, it seemed safest, & just hoped they didn't notice the many different shades of black that were going on!

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  3. I think you've highlight that teaching and lecturing is something that should be done after a bit of life experience. It's great to hear that you're now enjoying being in the classroom, even if you woun't get much sleep tonight!!

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    1. Definitely true for me. & I think it's partly a class thing again, that I just wasn't very confident in my 20s with my comprehensive education & poly degree. Not that I'm particularly confident now, but I care less what people think! Thanks for commenting.

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  4. You sound very dedicated. I hope your lecture goes well tomorrow x

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  5. I am a teacher too but left it all to take care of the children. I think teaching is the kind of profession that just takes over your life. Great to know you are enjoying the classroom experience. I so miss it!!

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    1. I think so too, although my husband (also a teacher would disagree - he chose it specifically for the long holidays when he could go windsurfing!). Do you think you'll go back when the children are older?

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  6. So how did it go? Did you enjoy giving the lecture? I worked at a Uni before moving here and was often offered visiting lecturer hours but never got the courage up! It seems a shame to read what you say about the pubic school kids excelling, it makes me re-think about my own kids education. Mich x

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    1. It would be interesting to look at the public vs state kids' results over the course of their degrees to see if it holds true - these were first years & it would be nice to think it evened out a bit. Thanks for commenting. x

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  7. How was the lecture?

    I've done a few lectures for university students. I found the BA ones were really shy (erm, possibly bored) and not very forthcoming when I got them brainstorming. They seemed to prefer the passive nature of listening to a lecture, but that's just not my style. However, the MA students were really brilliant - attentive, questioning. So, perhaps it's confidence with age?

    It's pretty depressing that the public school kids are getting the edge on the state school ones. Why does our school system not teach confidence across the board? What are we doing wrong? (well, I could start on that one, but that's probably another blog post!).

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    1. That sounds promising, it would be lovely to teach some MA students. I'm sure it is partly confidence with age, & also settling into a speciality that you love. I know that my Masters was perhaps the nicest learning year of my life.

      I'm sure the confidence with public vs state school things is partly the crowd control thing, & not having the space for 30+ opinionated kids to thrive. I absolutely don't believe it's anything to do with the teacher; my gut feeling is the most passionate teachers stay in the state sector. Do it - your blog post ...

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  8. Thanks for all your comments. I've done the series of 3 lectures now - the first I talked too fast & wound up 5 minutes early! The second 2 I managed to slow down & also used lots more examples to break up the narrative. The second one was on analysing visual documents, so I used lots of examples on blogging, which was really interesting, So definitely something I want to do more of if I get the chance.

    These were second years, starting to panic about their dissertations so it was noticeable that they were less shy about participating, & tonnes of them have questions afterwards. But weird how attached they get to where they sit in a classroom, once they've sat there once that's it!

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