Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Teaching 101: A Hard Lesson

On the bright side, I have the nicest classroom out of all the TA's.

As I've mentioned before, I was lucky enough to get a teaching assistantship at UNCW. This means that I receive a stipend and tuition assistance in exchange for educating undergraduates about the fine art of creative writing. UNCW actually has one of the better programs for teaching assistants - we're given a ton of support through co-teaching with a cohort our first year, a class devoted to creative writing teaching and pedagogy, and a network of TA's, past and present, who freely share their experiences. We're not at all expected to reinvent the wheel, for which I'm very grateful.

So, now that I'm two weeks into the whole teaching thing, what's it like? To put it simply: much, much harder than it looks. It's no secret that I love school and would even go so far as to consider myself a connoisseur of the classroom experience. That, however, is as a student. As a teacher? I pretty much have no idea what I'm doing.

That's not true. I have an idea. In my head, I arrive to class with a brilliant lesson plan that illuminates the mystery and magic of writing and that inspires my students to pick up their pens and complete their exercises courageously, fiercely. They all clamor to share what they've written out loud and are terribly disappointed when we only have time to hear two or three. That disappointment is short-lived, because soon we're discussing last week's assigned reading and the students are full of insightful opinions and astute questions. I explain what I can in a clear and concise manner and my students think I'm the most brilliant teaching assistant to ever walk on this campus. After class, many of them hang behind to continue the discussion or ask for recommendations for further reading. I head to my next destination feeling confident in my abilities as an instructor and excited about the next generation of writers and readers.

Oh, the glamor!

This is the idea. The reality goes something like this: I spend hours breaking my lesson plan down into five minute increments, so there is no chance that I will run out of things do to fifteen minutes into class (a very real fear). I comb the archives of TA's past and my own hazy memories for writing exercises and readings that I think my students will connect with and respond to.  When I get to class, my students stare at me, waiting for... I'm not sure what exactly they're waiting for, but it is clear that whatever it is, I do not have it. I hastily give them a ten minute writing assignment so I can breathe deeply and rewrite my lesson plan while they work, because they are obviously not up for a five minute long discussion of a story that no one seems to have read. When the ten minutes is over and I ask for volunteers to read what they have written, everyone is apparently fascinated with the table, the floor and/or their shoes, because no one is meeting my expectant gaze. I eventually call on someone randomly, which makes me feel like a horrible person, but what am I supposed to do? After that person reads - and their writing is actually pretty good - I decide to call on everyone, just so I can be equally horrible to them all. They all read, and deep down they seem to enjoy listening to each other and sharing their own work. Will they ever admit this? Will they ever actually volunteer to read? Probably not. 

Class ends ten minutes early, which is pretty good considering what we've been through. As I tell them next week's assignment they're already packing up their stuff, rustling papers and pulling out cell phones to check their messages. "Good work today," I say, but no one hears me. Within thirty seconds they are gone and I'm left alone in the room, wondering how anyone does this for a living. 

For now, I remind myself that I've only been teaching for two weeks, and that if I think about, the second week was already better than the first. I'm learning and hopefully, eventually, I can pass that on to my students. In the meantime, I am finding that having an arsenal of in-class exercises is key, and that calling on people does not make me an evil teacher. Baby steps, my friends. Baby steps. 

To my fellow professor, teacher and student friends: Any advice for a brand new teacher, who would like to turn this into a somewhat successful career? Any and all advice is appreciated.