Ah, Baby University Instructor Sarah of five years ago. I’m jealous of you because there’s so much for you to learn and do. But I’m also totally not jealous, because there are a few important things you don’t know. Like…
1. I am going to make mistakes that hurt people, but I can’t let myself give up.
As an instructor, I’ve got to keep opposite truths in mind: learners are more resilient than we instructors often give them credit for and also terribly vulnerable to misuse of our authority. I’m privileged that what I say might resonate with a class far past my intended meaning. That can be good, if I’m always thoughtful and respectful — but who can live up to that standard?
Not me. I’m sure I’ve said and done dozens of things that inadvertently hurt the people I wanted to benefit. Some I probably still don’t know about, and I at least recognize others as mistakes.
No instructor on Earth can teach without accidentally saying or doing something that hurts someone they’re supposed to serve. Given that, it’s on me both to spot and correct my mistakes when I can and not to hold myself to self-destructive perfect standards. Nobody benefits when I give up on doing better.
2. Leniency is less fair than strict rules.
My heart always goes out to students who are unhappy with their grades or want me to bend the rules just this once. And there are some rules I bend for everyone — I trust learners’ own judgement on their current state of health, because it’s better to let a cheater cheat themselves of an education than to fail to accommodate someone who deserves it.*
But the moment I start applying rules to some students and not to others is the moment I allow myself to perpetuate my own biases. Everyone who copies-and-pastes external sources without citation has to be called up for a facilitated discussion. Nobody who submits assignments late gets a free pass. Otherwise, I’m making gut-level judgements on learners’ intentions, and, whether I want to or not, I’m going to replicate my implicit prejudices. Not to mention, I’ll make it more difficult for other students to figure out which rules I’ll enforce and when.
3. Setting expectations appropriately is more important than meeting ideal deadlines.
Before I started teaching, I thought the most important part of my job was going to be working hard to get graded papers back swiftly and answer emails the moment a learner hit the “send” button. I still thought that for a few years.
But, as I’ve posted about before, reality caught up with me. And from my supportive and smart coworkers and teacher-friends, I learned this key attitude: it’s not about always meeting every deadline, especially when you set them for yourself so strictly. It’s about being transparent about your work process from the start and managing others’ expectations.
For instance, sometimes, it’s going to take me three weeks, not two, to mark a set of papers. If I have several classes of 30+ all submitting writing assignments at the same time, I cannot physically return those assignments with useful feedback within two weeks when I’m still teaching a full course load. Instead of pushing myself to the breaking point, I need to start off by telling my classes that they may not get these back until Week 9, but I’m happy to review them in advance during office hours for anyone who wants feedback before the next assignment.
4. “Silly” questions are not always about their literal meaning.
I know many instructors who feel like careless emails from learners are the bane of their teaching existence. And it’s difficult not to cringe when you get emailed questions that ask you something you said clearly three times in class (including phrases like, “If you think you might forget, please write this down”) or wrote in the syllabus. It makes you feel like the person on the other end of the Internet is too lazy to look up the answer themselves or doesn’t care about listening to you.
But finally after a year or two, I started to understand. Questions aren’t always about their literal meaning.
So many of the learners who reach out over email aren’t saying, “Please do my work for me,” they’re saying, “I feel confused and/or anxious. Please reassure me that I’ve got it right.” or “I want someone in authority to acknowledge what my life is like right now, even if you can’t accommodate me for it.” or “University is impersonal and complex, and sometimes I want another human being to show they care.”
Others aren’t emailing because they’re poor learners who can’t or won’t process what I tell them — they’re emailing because they’ve had other instructors who would dock them 25% for going one word over the limit. Or who said one thing in the syllabus and another in the classroom. They have no way of knowing that I’m not that person.
5. You can’t be the right teacher for everyone.
Nobody likes being disliked. It hurts to hear “Ugh, her class again.” And, worse, it makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong as a teacher if any of the learners in my class are bored or falling asleep or resentful.
Obviously, if every learner in my class is having a bad, unproductive time, then, yes, I do need to work on my teaching. But I’m never going to make every learner in my class like me and our course material: there are too many factors outside my control.
I can’t remove all the outside-class stress from their lives. I can’t solve problems at home or in their relationship. I can’t change their health status. I can’t make them love something that’s against their character. And I can’t be the right teacher for every learner. Sometimes, we’re just not suited to each other, no matter how many pedagogical techniques I learn, and that’s okay.
6. Teaching is exhausting.
Not just the obviously tiring parts, like grading or preparing learning plans or even giving energetic lectures. Answering emails, supervising work, paying attention to learners’ problems: all those things take a lot of energy. I can spend all day watching other people write papers, answering only a question or two here and there, and I still want to go straight to bed when I get home.
Pretending you’re not tired is also tiring. Because if the learners are falling asleep in an 8am class, the last thing they need is for the teacher to come in visibly exhausted too.
7. Prepare food before term starts.
Every semester, I try to prep freezer meals for when term gets going and the going gets tough. I learned how to make my own frozen fries/chicken fingers/burger patties that I like better than the ones from the store. I discovered, through trial-and-error, which sauces freeze well and which have to be made on the spot.
Having a selection of nutritious meals you can pop in the oven without any effort — no pressing garlic, no dirtying a bunch of measuring spoons — is essential to my mental health over term. I do the cooking for Fiancé and me; when I’m too stressed or exhausted to make dinner, I feel like I’m throwing a wrench in both our days, and that just compounds those difficulties.
This semester, I made myself a bunch of frozen lunches too. Being able to pop a mini meat pie (my favourite!) into my lunch box for the next day gives me something to look forward to tomorrow and lets me get back to work, stress-free.
8. It’s easier to learn names when the learners are in groups.
Jeez, I wish I’d known this when I started out.
Asking learners to complete exercises in small participation groups is pedagogically effective for many reasons, but it comes with the added benefit of making it easier for the instructor to learn names. If I know who’s in which group and I learn the name of at least one group member, I can more easily remember the names of the rest.
And it’s important to learn names, especially in the smallish (30-36 people) sections I teach, especially when I’m responsible for giving participation grades. Especially when learners already might feel anonymous in a huge system.
* Plus, doctors hate the system of writing sick notes. Seriously, it benefits nobody, and doctors have told me in person that they just give out notes to anyone who says they are/were sick.