Lessons for New Professors

Elizabeth Parfitt offers some advice for those getting ready to lead courses for the first time.

May 28, 2010

Dear Future Teachers for Fall 2010:

We've finally finished a grueling spring semester. After months of job searching and training in your graduate programs, you are now prepped and poised to attack your first semester teaching. Most of you will consider yourselves educated in basic pedagogy, and what it means to teach an introductory course in your field. You’ve read the theory and debated the methods. You've crafted assignments and completed countless peer reviews. And you've discovered the joys of discensus in a collaborative learning environment. But before you enter into that contact zone and hand out your 20-page, excuse-proof syllabus, it is my hope that the academy has demystified some of the pedagogical theories that you'll need to know in order to decode that first semester teaching.

In other words, I hope you’ve learned something useful.

In my graduate course — “Teaching College Composition” — we covered a lot this spring, yet I feel like a few things were left off the syllabus that would be valuable for any course about teaching, no matter the discipline. I can't recall exactly how many times my students commented, "Well this is fine ‘in theory,' but what about in practice?" at which point I'd smile, sigh, lean back in my chair and try to explain the method to the theoretical madness. My weekly shoulder shrugs likely indicated that there is little that can replace classroom experience, but that every teacher must start somewhere.

Fortunately, my class of future teachers was engaged, hardworking and curious about what it meant to be an authority in a classroom while still decentralizing that authority for student learners. It was only in their private class logs that I detected the steady undercurrent of pragmatist-driven anxiety that is often absent in academic theory. But perhaps that is the point of a course on teaching — to raise theories and practices to critical consciousness in a way that forces you to make choices about your future pedagogies. Regardless of the course you’ll be teaching or department you’ll be situated in, these unanswered questions about our work drive our research and learning.

While this may be the case, it wasn’t so long ago that I was in your position, and I recognize the uncertainty and power that comes with teaching your own course. As exciting as it is to have the whole summer to prepare for your new gig, it is equally unnerving to feel … well, completely freaked out. Without thorough preparation, I fear you might do what any new teacher in your situation would: worry, obtain anxiety meds, complain, use your teaching theory course as inspiration for your epic novel on the pitfalls of modern education, and above all email your adviser daily with questions about how you will possibly manage to teach your course come fall.

Thus, for the sake of those lucky soon-to-be teachers (and adviser inboxes everywhere), I've decided to write this short addendum in an effort to address 5 major lessons that were probably left off the syllabus in your teacher training this year.

1. Time management is essential.

To preface, let me provide an example. If you want to be a teacher AND go the gym, have a social life or do any kind of pleasure reading, you won't have time to______________ (fill in the blank with: grade, write your thesis, shower, read for your grad classes, email your mother that you're still alive, sleep, keep any sort of pet, or eat meals that don’t come in a take-out container).

OK, so I exaggerate slightly. Think of it as a scare tactic to keep you organized. Unfortunately, as a new instructor, time will not be on your side. This is not a 9 to 5 job and this is not the type of work that is easy to leave at the office. My first semester teaching, I obsessed about it seven days a week, all hours of the day. I replayed moments in my head, I second-guessed answers I gave, I worried that I wasn't doing enough or that I was doing too much and not getting the right results. Alas, this is the life of a young professional in a challenging work environment with a slew of high-maintenance clients who require time and attention to bring them to their full potential.

Welcome to academe and the real world.

While free time may be hard to come by, teaching does help you to quickly prioritize what needs to get done in class today, what needs to get done before 10 p.m. tonight, and what can wait until tomorrow morning. The purpose of time management is to prioritize. If you want to get out of your first year of teaching with a balanced diet of caffeine and Dunkin Donuts, you'll be fine. But if you want to actually have the energy to walk home at the end of the day, you'll need to make some choices. Trust your instincts, both in the classroom and in life. Make time for yourself so you don't resent the work. And above all, realize that no teacher gets it perfect the first time around (or the second, or the third...).

2. You may not change the world, but you might change one student's world.

So we return to the mind-blowing theories that seem great on paper but you can't imagine ever working in a society where students are consumers and grades are their currency. Sure, it would be amazing if society changed its static view of language to allow for growth, globalization, culture, and economics. "This is great to imagine," you said in my class, "but is this ever really plausible?"

While it's true that theory can be an idealized version of the perfect utopian classroom where students always participate and ideas can change the world, I’d like to ask: What's so wrong with that as an ideal? Isn't that why we're in education in the first place? To change the way people think and communicate? To believe that our work can change the world?

As you begin teaching this fall, try to remember this: those theories changed many of your minds this semester and also gave you the tools to teach your students. You might not teach every student to write with unity, cohesion, and a strong, supported argument, but you might connect with one student in a way that forces him to think critically about your class and the world around him. And that's a triumph.

3. Establish a teaching persona that is unique to you.

We talked a lot in my class about the role of authority and the teacher's presence in a classroom, as well as in your comments on the page. But we didn't talk about the nuts and bolts of this presentation: What do you wear? What should they call you? What do you do when they friend you on Facebook? (Ignore, ignore, ignore…)

Many people like to talk about "teaching personas" as this role that we play when we step into a classroom. Some may think that as soon as you cross the threshold to your classroom, you will instantly be transported to a world where people respect and admire you simply because you are holding a dry erase marker at the front of the room. I know that none of you are that naive. Rather, a teaching persona is something that must be developed, articulated and formed within each individual instructor based on his or her personality and methods. With this in mind, I have only two words of advice: Be yourself.

When I started teaching I was 23, looked like I was 17, and the most frequent comment I received on student evaluations was: "This teacher never tells anyone he is wrong." While this was a writing class, and it's not common to tell a student his or her opinion is "wrong," I'm sure these comments were largely a response to my inexperience facilitating conversations and pushing students to think further about their ideas. My first semester teaching, I thought I had the brightest, most articulate, most exciting students ever! They could never be wrong — and who was I, a first-time teacher, to question them? There were many days when I thought I was the one who was wrong.

Students are experts in creating personas. They've grown up developing online characters that they've designed and cultivated to full realization. They’re sharp and clever, and can see through any teacher who is playing the role of the authority instead of allowing themselves to just be an authority. But while it may have taken me a few semesters to fully develop my persona in the classroom, I never tried to be anything that I wasn't. Students called me by my first name, I dressed like any young professional going from day to night would, and I didn't flaunt my authority. I just tried to be the best authority I could at the time. This approach allowed me to bring my personality into the classroom and to gain confidence in my work. Students can see the insecurities in a young teacher barking no-tolerance lateness policies in a Brooks Brothers suit, but they won't blink at a guy in a Pearl Jam t-shirt who can facilitate a room with flair, a music reference or two, and a few great questions.

4. Learn and accept the ugly truth about grading.

You will get to know your students — and that will make grading difficult. With a small class, and a community of learners, you will become engaged in their work, their discussions, their writing, and their lives (at least what you read in their papers, e-mails, and hear while you're eavesdropping from the front of the room, waiting for class to begin.) Grading will not be easy — in fact, I'd go so far to say that some of the most difficult work you do all term will be the simple act of placing a letter on a page. You will torture yourself over pluses and minuses. You will feel the need to justify what that letter claims. And you will probably ask your roommate who had to take Freshman Composition twice what he/she thinks of this paper — “just out of curiosity.” Grading is not fun, but it plays an important part in teaching and learning. It is part of the job that requires distance and perspective. One grade does not define a student, just as one assignment or class does not define your teaching. Once you accept that, the red letter on the page will begin to represent an emphatic marker of achievement and knowledge, and less a Hawthorne-esque metaphor for individual character and efforts.

5. Expect the unexpected.

Many of you asked me what you do when things don't exactly go your way in the classroom. For example, you get a group of students who don't__________ (fill in the blank with all that apply: talk, read, write, work, behave like adults, respect your authority, understand your assignments, enjoy collaborative learning as much as you do, want to be at college, know how much this course is costing them, respect the classroom space, or appreciate the fact that you're wearing the same sweater they picked up on the Gap clearance rack this weekend). When this happens, how should you handle it? The answer: in the moment.

So much of teaching is thinking on your feet, working in the moment, responding to the questions, energy and work that you receive from your students. You will experience major failures and minor victories. You will have assignments that bomb and discussions that blow your mind. Your students will excel in class, but struggle on the page. You will experience days when you think you've lost all control and others when you can't believe the class is over. But as long as you are aware that this is the nature of the beast, and not always an indicator of your effort or intelligence, you'll get through it, rewrite, revise and try again.

In closing this final chapter to your teacher training, I’d like to add that no matter what you learned or didn't learn in your pedagogical theory courses, this job, these students, the work you do in your classroom will change who you are and how you view the world. Some of you will use this experience to inform your applications for Ph.D. programs, some of you will be amazed at how much you learn about yourselves in the process, and some of you — like me just a few years back — will find a career.

In the meantime, enjoy your summer break. Hit the gym, read a few mass-market paperbacks, visit your Mom. Come fall, you'll be glad you did.

I look forward to teaching with you in September.


Elizabeth Parfitt is a lecturer in the writing, literature and publishing department at Emerson College.


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