I’ve been writing about service lately, so I thought it was time to give teaching some coverage. It’s week 12 of a 16 week semester, and at this point my teaching schedule has been internalised and I have gotten over most of my nerves. But, nerves about teaching accompany each semester.
The very first time I taught at Georgia Tech, I actually did not teach I gave a 1 hour conference talk. Mmm… not so good. My first thought was “oh shit, I’m going to run out of all my carefully prepared material” in a fortnight. I also decided that I was going to need to come out from behind the podium and interact with the class. I was nervous and frightened, not because of the students, they were lovely and kind and as my first class I have fond memories of them (thank you, you know who you are). But I was still nervous, I wanted to do a good job, but it was apparent to me then that I didn’t know how to teach and had had little practice to draw on.
My style has evolved in the 7 years since then. Mostly in a good way. I am still known for getting off topic, for my “um”, and for mispelling things on the whiteboard and then trying to unsuccessfully convince people that it’s British English. Georgia Tech students do not typically fall for this, but it does mean I don’t try to correct the misspelt word anymore. (I have learnt that once the word has gone wrong it’s just best left alone, attempts to correct frequently result in even worse misspellings).
But despite the evolution in teaching methods the nerves remain. Before class starts each semester I typically have dreams about teaching. I miss class. I teach the wrong class. I discover 5 weeks into a 16 week semester that I was meant to teach a class that’s been meeting without me (not likely) for those 5 weeks.
This builds until the first day. And I now understand it to be a combination of performance anxiety and meeting new people. I’m always a bit nervous when I meet a lot of new people. And there’s nothing like class for meeting a lot of new people. All at once. They all know you, and you don’t know any of them.
One of the things that eases over time is that you start to get to know the students. Some by name. Some by the place where they sit, for we are all creatures of habit. Some because they knit in class. Some because they show up wearing pajama bottoms to class, something that you wish you could do. A degree of familiarity gets established, for these particular hours on these particular days, we will be together, and we’ll have to make the most of it.
One area where my nerves have dissipated over time is in trying to reach everyone. Some people have terrible game faces. They sit there staring at you as if you were mad, or as if they were angry, but it turns out that that’s just the way that they pay attention. Knowing that made me less nervous. And I am glad that there is reach there, even if it’s accompanied by a look of vague hostility (sometimes not so vague).
I used to get nervous when I couldn’t reach someone. Then I read a wonderful book about the experience of being a student. I learnt that some of the students in my classes are not there to be reached (or at least not as much as I would like). They’ve made calculation that involves prioritizing among the classes they are taking, and yours doesn’t make the top end of the cut. I still try, for a while, and then once it is clear what my place is in their classroom calculus, I recognize it, and at least while other feelings of frustration may ensue, I am not nervous.
There is one thing that still makes me nervous, when students receive grades that are not what they wanted or expected. Female Science Professor wrote about this, I am glad I am not alone.
But the main reason I wanted to write the post was to say that in the 7 years I’ve been teaching, my nerves have subsided, but they have not gone away. I spent some years thinking that eventually my nerves would pass, now I wonder whether some degree of nerves is central to the experience.