Tuesday, October 12, 2010

How do I stop hating it?

I want to like teaching. I really, really want to like it. I love the academy. I love knowledge. I love ivy-covered old stone buildings. I enjoy research, discussions with colleagues, and attending conferences. I even like sitting on committees. I want to be a professor, as foolish a hope as that may seem today.

But I'm a PhD student who is now several years into teaching (as a TA), and I absolutely hate it. Even though it doesn't generally take up much of my time, those few hours I spend in a classroom are by far the worst of my week, with a day of anxiety leading up to them, and a state of absolute exhaustion following them.

After a few years at this, I'm finally starting to feel more confident about my grasp of the material (I have little background in my teaching area, and my own work is very different, in theoretical orientation and methodology, from the prof for whom I teach). I've been reading up on teaching techniques and have been attending seminars and workshops offered by our institution's teaching center.

I still feel like I have absolutely no idea what I'm supposed to do to fill that classroom time, and the pressure of being the focus of attention for that period fills me with dread and the urge to fake my own death (or whatever else it takes to get away from teaching that week). The stress and panic is almost indescribable. I've tried to move gradually away from scripting in advance every word I utter to students -- including my supposedly 'off the cuff' remarks -- and to introduce more interactive learning methods. But every time I try to explain something which I haven't written down and rehearsed word-for-word, I find myself constantly uttering odd and incoherent things, and backtracking to correct things I've said. (I don't do well at thinking and formulating my thoughts on the fly -- my brain has an odd 'time lag' in this regard -- but this skills seems indispensable when teaching.) I would hate to be a student in my own tutorial, having to put up with all my 'um's and 'uh's and awkward pauses, too. At most, my student evaluations run in the low-average range, in spite of knowing that I put in a lot more prep time then some of my higher-ranked fellow TAs. None of my 'how-to' knowledge about teaching seems to translate into anything of value in the classroom.

So, what do I do? Is it really impossible for some people to learn to be good teachers, no matter how intelligent and dedicated they are? Is it possible for me to ever learn to like this job, even to love it, when it's so stressful and I'm muddling through so poorly?


  1. It sounds to me like part of your problem with being a good teacher is being a good public speaker. Have you ever taken a course in public speaking? I never did, and I wish I had, since it could have saved me a lot of misery. I quite frankly stank at public speaking for a long time, and I only improved with practice well into my postdoc years. When I got hired for my first teaching job, I was hitting only about 50% of the time: having taught hundreds of classes since then has made me a lot smoother. It has also made me much more fluent with the knowledge required, and with the questions that students are most likely to ask, both of which help a lot, too.

  2. Amen to that, Froderick. Socio, I really feel for you. I am, apparently, a very good teacher, if evaluations and peer observations are any indicator. But for the first decade, I was exhausted every time I taught because I'd been up worrying, sometimes to the point of throwing up, the night before.

    If you're not good at on-the-fly thinking, lecture teaching can be a real comfort, so maybe that's the kind of position you should shoot for. Also, there are some really good teaching books out there. I like the one by Barbara Davis (I think) called Tools for Teaching.

    It does, slowly, get better.

  3. I was terribly shy and geeky as a kid, and grad school was a long annealing process-- that's what it's for. One day I walked into a classroom and was no longer terrified. It took a while. And once it's YOUR class, and you're not mostly parroting some insane silverback's narrative and content, you'll know much more what needs to be going on in there. I absolutely loathed TA'ing and teaching discussion sections, but my own classes are awesome. And once you do the same class a second time you work out the kinks and know the material better and eventually it becomes yours. See if you can get yourself a summer section of something to teach on your own and I suspect it will be a much different experience.

  4. Lots of good advice here. In addition to all this, I'd say you should play to your strengths as you get more comfortable with on-the-fly presentation. Well, you don't like being the focus of attention for unrehearsed speaking? Do try some lecture. Give in-class activities with written directions that you don't need to spend a lot of time explaining. You can then work one-on-one or in very small groups with students. Ask students to give presentations (lots of good learning there and it shifts the onus form you, but you do have to do some impromptu work in correcting gaffes).

    And, as noted above, you will get more comfortable over time. Look at this this way--even with the problems you're whipping yourself for, the students aren't completely trashing you one evaluations. And the judgmental little buggers are so desperate to have information injected directly into their brains where it can stay only long enough to be vomited onto a test paper that if you were truly fumbling everything, they'd completely trash you. I've seen it happen, for example, to colleagues with accents, who often speak more properly than their charges and can run rings around them in writing.

  5. I'd add John Bean's "Engaging Ideas" as a resource for teaching techniques that take the focus off of you and put it on the students.

    I like teaching, but liking it and being good at it are totally different things. So, I use resources like Bean's book AND our university teaching resource center to help. If your uni has one (a teaching resource center) you might visit them?

  6. BlackDog: I just requested the Bean text from my library. Looks like a very practical book. Thanks for the recommendation; from a quick look, it may be of real value to SocioConvert.

  7. OK, I'll say it since no one else will.

    Some folks suck at teaching. They do now. Despite massive attempts to better themselves, they always will.

    And they never LIKE it either.

    If you suck at it AND you hate it, and you know in your heart of hearts it ain't going to get better, you might want to consider non-teaching outlets in your field.

    Lord knows there aren't enough teaching jobs out there.

  8. Cleo's right. My adviser is a wonderful person, brilliant in his way, hilarious in person, and a great black hole of social ineptness at the chalkboard.

    But, there are things you can do to lessen this.

    Teaching is 50% performance. So shift the script. Make a rotation of 5 or 6 teaching styles and use them all.

    Day One: Short media presentation (eg, 10 minute video), followed by an in-class writing assignment connecting the video with the reading, followed by volunteer presentations of what students wrote. Then fill the last 20 minutes with lecture, either walking around or at a podium.

    Day Two: Interactive worksheets (graphs, timelines, labeling maps or charting a plot, depending on the discipline) followed by a discussion on the reading (pre-circulated discussion questions?) followed by an explanation of the upcoming essay assignment, end with group work assignment.

    If you hate it, change it up so much that time begins speeding along. Soon you'll realize you're so focused on changing it up that you've started to relax. You'll pick your favorite kinds of teaching styles and start feeling more comfortable in front of their blank faces.

  9. My uni offers individual teaching help where someone will come observe you in action.

    An outsider will be able to tell you which things you are already doing that are good, which things to tweak, and which things to scrap.

    If you don't have access to a program like this, get a friend to videotape you so you can watch what actually went on in the room and see how that compares to your impressions.

  10. Cute Cleo has a very valid point.

    SocioConvert, I applaud the fact that you want to get better at teaching when you know you are not all that great at it, however the question you really have to ask is whether teaching is for you. My first teaching experiences were both exhilirating and nauseating. I sweated, I shook, but afterward I still really wanted to be there. I LOVED being up in front of the class sharing my knowledge and passion for the subject. The certainty that this was the choice for me carried me through the first years of fumbling, bumbling and making mistakes.

    You have to have a passion for teaching because there are just too many other things that come along inside and outside of the classroom that make you question the sanity of your choice to teach again and again. If you don't have that core desire to be there, the lack of it will undermine you forever.

    If your motivation to be a better teacher is to feel less stress and not feel crummy about yourself, that's really not the right motivation. Those are laudable goals, and you may get better at the mechanics of teaching so that things go smoothly and calmly. But if you don't have the passion and joy that come from preparing, presenting, evaluating, etc., you are cheating yourself and your students.

    Perhaps you are not yet teaching the material that you are truly passionate about. Maybe you could bring some of that into your classroom and see if that made any difference as to how you felt about the whole experience. If you get "bit by the teaching bug" then, you will know that it wasn't necessarily the job itself, but the material. Try some of the great teaching styles suggested above as well and see if maybe changing the environment does the trick.

    But in the end, 'to thine own self be true.' Only by doing something we love can we share the love of it with others. If you hate mountain climbing, you are never going to inspire others to climb mountains.

  11. Don't worry about the students; do what *you* can feel good about.


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