Why the master should become the student

This term has been so busy for me – I’ve started a new job, which I love, but which involves a lot of work, in a lot of different directions. All of this work is the kind of challenge I really thrive with, and in many ways, I’m really happy with the progress I’ve made so far. I still feel like there are things to learn, and I have felt, as one of my sister newbies said of her own teaching, that I’m making a lot of the rookie mistakes we tend to make when teaching a new course. I mismanaged my TA hours, so I now find myself at the end of the term, when marking really builds up, with no help. I’m facing that weird paradoxical feeling of there being only a few classes left, so not enough time to cover everything, while still feeling like I haven’t planned those classes in enough detail. I missed an important deadline for a curriculum change that I really want to have in place for next year, so it’s entirely possible that this change just won’t happen when I want.

On the other hand, I feel like I have established a good rapport with most of my colleagues, and that the changes I’m planning are welcome and supported. My students are comfortable with me, and they’re doing well. I have even figured out (mostly) the intricate online advising platform. I feel very much at home, and full of optimism for myself and my program.

Part of the reason things are a little overwhelming is that I agreed to teach an extra course this term, in exchange for (a) having TAs and (b) teaching one fewer next term. I am taking an online program in editing, and I have enrolled in two courses this winter, and another in the spring. My dissertation is currently in the hands of my committee, so the timing looks like it will work out really well – I’ll have less teaching in the winter, so time to work on revisions and my own coursework, as well as, of course, planning for next year’s courses and more program development. This term, I am taking only one course in the editing program, but that one course is getting away from me. Like, to the point that when our prof sent a message early this week to say she would be late getting to our latest assignments because she had an emergency appendectomy, my immediate reaction was “thank god.” Which makes me a terrible person, obviously, but I’m still grateful for a little extra time to get caught up.

Upon reflection, my reaction to my prof’s misfortune made me think more about the project I’m hoping to undertake, exploring the benefits of teachers becoming learners, especially outside their discipline or professional development. What I’m thinking is that when we put ourselves back into our student roles, we have a better appreciation of how our own students have to juggle work, school, and life. As teachers, we complain that our students don’t know how to prioritize – but as students, maybe we learn that prioritizing is harder than we thought.

The other important aspect of the teacher-as-student experience is, I believe, the value of remembering what it feels like to not know. I’ve said this before: many of us are teachers because we enjoyed being students (or, at least, we felt like we were good at being students). So it’s valuable for us, as teachers who successfully navigated school, college, undergrad, and grad school, to remind ourselves that our students are still navigating. The content we’re presenting is new to them, and maybe the way we present it makes sense to us, but doesn’t resonate with all of them. I think of how it feels to walk my partner through cooking complex recipes (and note that I had to resist the urge to write ‘complex’ in quotation marks): I have no patience with him. How can someone – an adult whom I once thought of as smart – not know what it means to “brown the butter?” I have to remind myself that once upon a time, I didn’t know what that meant, either. Add to that the fact that he and I have very different learning approaches – I am the proverbial bull in the china shop. I will figure out what “brown the butter” means by making an educated guess and just doing it. That’s how I figured out how to strip paint off an old door, as the permanent damage to the floor tiles nearby attest. Make your best guess, try it, then clean up the aftermath.

His approach is much more theoretical and methodical. What is the butter supposed to look like? What is the process of browning? Can we go through the steps on paper first, and clear up any confusion before turning on the stove? What are the myriad ways we might mess this up, and what do we need to do to ensure that doesn’t happen.

My approach means that when I am trying a new knitting pattern, more often than not, I finish the sweater/shawl/hat only to rip it out and start again. Seriously. I have one sweater that I made three times. Like, make it, rip it out, try again, rip it out again, and make it right this time. I don’t feel like I’m wasting my time, or that it’s frustrating to get so far into a project only to realize it’s not working. I feel like I’m learning, I’m practicing, I’m doing.

His approach means that when he (finally) does start something new, he knows how it’s going to finish, and he’s usually right. It makes him nervous to just start without knowing as much as he possibly can. It drives me nuts that he hasn’t started yet?? (when in fact he has, just not the way I would).

In the classroom, this recognition that our methods are different should influence how I think about how my students are learning. Yet, of course, I still find myself feeling frustrated by the student who seems almost deliberately slow to catch on when I’m presenting new content. I need to remind myself what it feels like to not know, whether my own solution to the feeling is to leap in or to slow down. The method matters less than the learning, so maybe my role is to give them the tools and the objectives, then be patient while they rip out the sweater or reread the pattern.

In the coming months, I want to talk with some of my teaching colleagues about our experiences going back into classrooms as students. My belief is that while we learn about editing, or art history, or a new language, or knitting, we are also learning to become better, more empathetic teachers. Stay tuned!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *