Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Big Thirsty: Does It Go Uphill or Downhill After Week #1?

I'm Terrance from Terhune and I was primed for this bloody profession by Compound Cal. He was my undergrad advisor (and the best "profie" I ever had), and then while I spent an interminable period of time in grad school and fighting in the job market, he continued to answer questions and offer assistance.

And I've just finished my first week of teaching at a decent flagship state school in the Midwest.

I'm in my early to mid 30s and I'm convinced every freshman is smarter than I (am? me? See?) I felt overmatched, confused, and exhausted after even a 55 minute class. I sweated in my first class. I never sweat!

I'm rattled and I didn't expect it. I started reading this page a couple of years ago and I just know that the combined wisdom here can help.

Q: Does it get easier or harder after the first week? The teaching, I mean. How long did it take you to get your feet under you. How long until you didn't feel like you were going to puke?


  1. Yes.

    Some things get easier, but not quickly. Some things get harder as you realize just what you're doing wrong and how much you don't know. (These things eventually get easier, then harder again, then levels off somewhere around tolerable)

    It took me about two weeks to realize that the pain in my shoulders was from the death-grip I had on the lectern, and another week before I actually let go and moved out from behind it, briefly.

    But you know more than they do, and you always will. Even if you're faking it by reading the same textbook they are, you know a lot more about the context, have better reading skills, and have years of experience faking it.

    (Seriously, this is what got me through my first years...)

  2. It gets easier fairly quickly (perhaps not a week, but throw a few weeks of meeting the same class under your belt, and yeah, it gets easier).
    How long did it take to get my feet under me as a teacher? You won't like the answer. It took me five years before I actually began to really teach, because I had no idea what I was doing and no one would explain it to me. I had to figure it out on my own, through reading books on teaching (Jesus, avoid the ones about how rewarding the damned profession is. You need tips and tricks, not feel good pep talks. Start with McKeachie's Teaching Tips. Also pick up Student Engagement Techniques. And I swear by Teaching With Your Mouth Shut, as well. All of these have a lot of great advice, which you can take, leave, mix, or match. Design your own classes on the basis of a coherent philosophy, but realize that it takes time to develop a coherent philosophy of teaching. Write it down. This isn't the one you'll show employers -- it's the real one. Mine starts with "My job is to trick students into doing 80% of the work of teaching themselves."
    As far as puking -- I don't suffer from stage freight. I did, however, have a nervous breakdown in front of a class once. I don't think anyone realized it, but I was inches away from screaming "no one gives a shit about your stupid paper." If that happens, find a good therapist. One that will teach you some cognitive behavioral modification techniques, not just put you on Prozac.
    This job is hard. It's mentally hard, but it's also emotionally hard, and it will take you some time, maybe years, to hit your stride. But if you don't burn out (and that's up to you, largely), then you will hit your stride. And then the job becomes fun, at least sometimes.

    1. I also don't suffer from stage fright. Freight, fright. What's the difference?

  3. Welcome to the misery!

    I suffered from horrible anxiety about being up front, until I realized that the students were more afraid of me than I was of them. They were afraid to be called on, afraid to look stupid in front of their peers, afraid of me thinking poorly of them, afraid of failing, afraid of everything.

    I was afraid of their thinking I was an idiot and afraid that I wasn't giving them their money's worth. Then I came to a realization that I already knew way more than they would and probably always would, so wasn't going to be deemed an idiot... and their opinion of me wasn't as important as what my friends and family thought of me. That helped me a lot. The anxiety of worrying about what they thought of me wasn't that hard to eliminate once I stopped caring about being liked.

    To really feel comfortable with a class, even now, almost 20 years later, I still need to teach it at least three times. Then I feel like I've got it down. :) You'll get there likely sooner than some of us, if you have Cal to guide you. :)

    1. By teach it three times, I mean all the way through, not three class periods. The first time I do my thing, the second time, I tweak to see how a new activity or new lecture goes, and the third I feel like I've figured out generally what works.

  4. I though it got a lot easier after the first two or three classes, once I memorized their names (which was difficult and I had only 20 students, 2/3 girls, but every girl had the exact same hair style and hair color with very few distinguishing characteristics). For me it was more about lecturing to total strangers vs. lecturing to students I kinda knew, a little. I had a decent class, though, just lucked out in that they were all nice, hardworking kids without any behavioural issues. Once you get to know at least a few names, it gets easier. I don't know about stage fright, though, I already had tons of public speaking and media interview experience when I taught the first class; I also teach strangers martial arts, so I'm used to that aspect. But it's always easier to lecture to people who aren't complete blank slates, so learn their names if possible, that helps (if you have a class of 200, that's not going to happen, but maybe learn the names of those who participate, at least).

  5. People warn you how long it will take to prepare your lectures, but never about the hour you need afterward to huddle in the closet, shaking off the dread and self-loathing.

  6. It took me four years to feel like I knew what I was doing, and 7 years before I started being comfortable with winging it. I still feel butterflies in my stomach on the first day of classes ten years in.

    Whenever possible, I recommend putting the onus on students to produce content. Student presentations, group work, discussions, exam questions, etc will show you that you really do know more than them, while also showing students that the work of teaching is hard. It also enhances their responsibility for good material when they have an audience. It's easier to get a silent F on a paper than a public F in front of your classmates. I know that this kind of student-produced knowledge is controversial, so maybe don't over-rely on it, but the first few lessons using that kind of focus will jump-start your confidence. I promise.

  7. I can't remember how long it took me to really get comfortable teaching (God, I'm old), but you should never feel as though the students know more than you do. That's unequivocally true.

    When I taught Calculus II for the first time, it was seven years in my teaching career. I had become extremely comfortable in the classroom over that time, but I did have a fear of teaching Calculus II. Part of it was that the material is very difficult, and it requires a lot more critical thinking on the students' part than Calculus I does. But the other part of it was that I never actually took a Calculus class - I had taught it to myself out a of a book, and learned the bare minimum to pass the AP exam (which is less than one would think). Anyway, I was a bit terrified to teach the class because I was afraid that the students would understand the material better than I would, or I'd get stumped in the middle of solving a problem, or I wouldn't be able to answer the students' questions.

    None of these issues actually happened. I was able to read through the textbook and immediately understand everything (thanks to the mathematical maturity I gained through the 20 or so math courses I took after Calculus). I went into class knowing more than everyone in the room. I was able to get through every problem we did in class (after all, I chose them! And I solved them all before class, just to make sure I'd have no issues). And rarely did a student's question stump me, but when it did, I was able to go to my office, figure out the answer, and email them immediately afterward. And the best part? I really enjoyed all of the Calculus that I learned that semester!

    Things will get easier. It takes time, the amount of which is different from person to person. But it will get easier.

  8. The first class I ever taught, I lectured the whole time, all semester. it was boring for the students, tried to cover way too much material, and made me feel like I had to write a paper to prepare for each class. The students didn't like the class, I didn't like the class, and the class was not successful in terms of meeting it's stated goals. Since then, I've never prepared a fully written lecture (I've also never had a class of more than 40 students though, so under those circumstances don't know if this strategy would work). I think about what I want the students to get out of each class, write a short outline for myself, clearly indicating the main points, and their order of progression, and, as much as possible, try to lead the students to make those points themselves. I require them to come to every class with talking points. I still end up lecturing a lot, but it's more organic, and more pleasant for me and I think for them also. So my advise, in short, is to remind yourself that students are people you want to communicate with, not an audience you need to prove your mastery to (even the best students don't/couldn't read and understand as much as you. Really). I'm not a feel-good, touchy-feely, active-learning bullshit person. I've just experienced first hand that I and my students find lectures draining and boring, and so how counterproductive full on lecture style classes can be (at least for me. maybe for people funnier or more rhetorically skilled than I am it works). If you can try not to let students and/or self doubt faze you (and I do realize those aren't easy hurdles), it will get better.

  9. It gets easier. Don't worry. You are light years ahead of your students. You'll realize this when you grade their papers. I still get tired and a bit nervous before class, especially at the beginning of the semester. Teaching is mostly a performance and performing wears you out.

  10. It does get easier. A line from "Mr. Chips" was "You wouldn't be the first teacher to get up in front of a classroom and feel a little bit afraid."

    1. My first two semesters were by far the hardest, constantly grappling with the unrelenting clock. The next 2-3 years weren’t easy, either. For any class I haven't taught before, it typically takes 5-8 hours to prepare for each hour in class. This isn't unusual: Winston Churchill took an eight-hour work day to prepare a 40-minute speech for the House of Commons, and he had a secretary and was smarter than most proffies. For any class I have taught previously, it typically takes me 1-2 hours to prepare for each hour in class. I usually have to teach any course at least 3-4 times before I it goes reasonably smoothly.

      I suffered from chronic anxiety until after I got tenure, after two years as an Accursed Visiting Assistant Professor at a different university, in addition to five years on the tenure track at my present university. That my department Chairs and other higher-ups were terrible and unsupportive made this much worse. I often wondered whether this was a fraternity hazing.

      Things improved a lot with tenure, 5-7 years in, and improved even more with increasing seniority. When I started my stint as department Chair, nine years in, I felt confident enough to get up in front of the department and make a short speech with the only preparation for which was the 1-2 things I could think of when walking up to the front of the room. You never want to teach any class that way, though. The sweating you do while teaching is normal. One of the best things I did during my undergraduate years to prepare for my faculty job was having been lead vocalist in a rock ‘n’ roll band, a very loud one.

      Being department Chair was lots of fun. I ruled benevolently with an iron fist. I am especially proud of how I looked out for the junior faculty. The point is not to see how much extra stress the senior faculty can dump on them. If we can’t help, at least get out of the way.

      After 11 years in I got promoted to full professor, which was the biggest raise in salary. It’s also a good bump-up for the ego: no more comments about “Who are you assisting?” that I got as an assistant professor, or “I want to speak to the professor, not the associate” that I once actually got when I was an associate professor.

      As far as feeling like you’re going to puke goes, that does subside with the chronic anxiety of your early years. The trouble is that, as you can see by reading College Misery, even though I’m now 15-17 years in, academia has no trouble coming up with fresh abominations. So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to HURL, right NOW: HAARRFyorkGLAAAAARRRRRRGGGGGHHHHH!!! Ah, that’s better.

  11. Welcome, our young Paduan.

    If you're still reading this, you must be very discouraged that we didn't all feel more confident by midterms. Sorry, the first couple of years of teaching usually are wretchedly anxious, exhausting and really tough on relationships.

    For me it wasn't about stage fright; like others here, I have a Past in performing. But the overwhelming daily stress of having to fill 3 to 5 hours of classroom time didn't subside for about five years. I kept trying different things and most of them didn't teach the concepts as well as I wanted. Eventually I amassed a repetoire of stories, discussion topics, slides, handouts, FAQ answers and occasional jokes. It just takes time.

    But I still get nightmares about being unprepared.

    FWIW, think this kind of chronic stress is common to everyone starting a career that requires knowing substantial content and applying it in regular high-stakes performance (nurses, physicians, actors, public defenders, journalists). We ought to be telling all the twenty- and thirty-somethings that if they *don't* go through it, they're not really challenging themselves enough to become really good at whatever it is they want to do.

  12. I don't remember any feelings of anxiety when teaching undergraduates, whether in the beginning (27 years ago) or yesterday. It may be what Ben said, I'm so convinced I know what I'm teaching backwards and forwards, and several levels higher, it's not even an issue. Or it may be I don't remember feelings, since I'm too busy explaining the stuff to monitor them. When I started I had prior experience running recitation sessions as a TA, and teaching wasn't all that different.

    As a postdoc I taught the first graduate course in my field to people who, today, have gone much farther than I have in my own area. That's a funny feeling in retrospect--I clearly didn't turn them off form the subject, but I have to wonder if they felt back then I wasn't teaching it at a deep enough level.

    1. Also, I've never walked into class without knowing exactly what I was going to do that day, from start to finish. I don't necessarily prepare it in detail, just plan out the structure in my head. Then I just walk in and do it, and they...have do deal with it.


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