Teaching for the First Time

Aside from a little tutoring here and there, I’ve never taught in my life and the prospect of guiding the new generation of thinkers through a poetry course (wildly unrelated to my own expertise) seemed rather daunting. It was, for the first two weeks or so. Armed with the encouragement of friends who had looked over my lesson plans and the lovely Sèan Richardson’s Beginner’s Guide to Teaching, off I went. Here’s my take on the experience, and what you can learn from it.

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Ms. Grotke from Recess, Disney Channel. Image source [https://www.romper.com/p/13-feminist-tv-shows-every-kid-adult-should-watch-545]

1. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail (but don’t overdo it).

As Sèan writes, lesson planning is a difficult beast: some days you’ll get through several activities in a flash, others you’ll spend the whole session on one task. I certainly found that a rough plan was better than a more detailed one, with approximate timeframes to get through each activity. My module, ‘Poetry: Reading & Interpretation’ was designed for first year undergraduate students for the introductory study of poetry. And, unusually for PhD teaching, seminar tutors were given free reign to choose our own texts for each week’s assigned reading. I found assigning more poems to read gave us choice over what to respond to in class – in my two groups opinions on each text varied wildly and it gave us the option to discuss things that everyone found enjoyable during the sessions.

2. Silence isn’t golden, it’s horrendous.

When I was a wee undergrad, I was very shy and would only participate in class because I found the deafening silence so incredibly uncomfortable I had to break it. Having now been on the other side of that awkward silence, I can tell you that it’s 100% worse when your question has brought it about. Time is one thing that makes your students more comfortable with each other, but one life hack I would recommend is playing background noises. While playing birdsong in the background as my students, in pairs, discussed Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ at the halfway point, I discovered the discussion came thicker and faster than ever before. As soon as the birdsong stopped, so did they. It turns out they were all just scared of having a potentially pants idea overheard by everyone.

3. Exhaustion is to be expected.

Particularly if you’re ambi- or introverted, speaking in front of a group of people is very draining, both physically and mentally. If you are used to giving conference papers you at least have your paper or notes in front of you: in a seminar format, this is far less likely. I’m usually stood in front of the whiteboard, drawing spider diagrams of my students’ discussions and prompting them further on their ideas. The unfortunate combination of this and scheduling a session for 10.00 on Tuesday mornings turned out to be unexpectedly draining for me this semester. Although I find teaching fun and rewarding, it does use up a lot of my brainpower, adrenaline, and social interaction quotas for the day. Having a good dinner, drinking lots of water, and exercising a bit can help physically, but don’t forget to give your brain a rest too – my teaching hours are usually followed by errands, housework, and life admin that I otherwise put off.

Finally, if there’s one thing about teaching that I’ve carried through from my undergrad days, it is this: don’t do morning classes.

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Notes from my first seminar – the what and why of poetry.