By Eileen Liang
I think I will always feel like a first-time instructor. The nerves I’ve been feeling since August are oddly reminiscent of my January butterflies before spring semester. Will this ever get easier? Less anxiety-producing? Will I ever feel ready? More “experienced”?
What’s different this time is that I don’t think of teaching as an unpleasant task I have to do. When I began teaching, last semester, I was someone who just wanted to read and think and write, not stand in front of a classroom as if I knew enough to be disseminating knowledge.
My attitude and approach have changed completely. Whether it’s because I feel the purpose of teaching and leading a community of learners more than ever in these times, or because I have the memories of a highly positive first experience to draw on, I don’t feel the same kind of reluctance. Anxiety? Always. But unenthusiastic dislike? No.
I never expected that I would find teaching as satisfying an endeavor as I do now. Having tutored extensively, led summer camp cooking lessons, and assisted in pre-Kindergarten classrooms, I was not a complete teaching novice. However, I’ve always felt more at home with younger students, and was perhaps more convinced of the positives that came with those experiences (kid hugs, smiles, and laughter are a helluva thing). My everyday experiences with a teenage sister (plus my own memories of myself at that age) had me less enthused about working with students in her age range.
What I’ve learned is that teaching is less about knowing enough, filling students with knowledge, and sending them on their way. Instead, teaching is more about learning together: me from my students, and my students from me, and from each other. What I’ve found is my students are more forgiving than I could have imagined and more open than some more established in the academy.
As I continue to learn to navigate the ivory tower as a doctoral student capable of oscillating rapidly between love of and intense hatred for academic life, teaching has come to the fore as something that feels tangible and real in a way that I had not considered. In the day-to-day, I struggle to juggle graduate-level classes with teaching and working, to maintain drive to continue despite self-doubt, and to deal with the battering of confusion and demeaning experiences. But unlike the slog of operating in the space of student/producer of knowledge, when I step to the front of the classroom, the students in the room with me aren’t abstract, but real breathing humans. What I do as an instructor, what I bring into the classroom, and how I act, react, and respond to what my students bring is all all that matters. I’ve found it more meaningful than anything I’ve done thus far as a student and burgeoning researcher.
This time, as I begin another semester of teaching, I still feel anxious. I suppose that’s just my base level. But I also feel the value of the task in a way I wasn’t even able to conceive of when I set out on this journey the first time. Granted, I have materials designed already, I’ve test-driven my methods, I’ve made changes, I’ve learned from mistakes.
But I also have something to hold onto because I’ve done the teaching and I’m still around to tell the tale…which means I’ll be able to do it again. That thought is more comforting than I could have expected, like knowing that I can speak up in a seminar and not be laughed at, or that I can practice yoga in a studio with other living beings and not die of embarrassment when I mess up. It’s these little steps, these little nudges that help me cope with whatever anxiety-inducing task I have to grapple with next. I can do this; I have done this; I have survived it. I can do it again.
Eileen Liang is a PhD student in Sociology at the Graduate Center, and a Contributing Writer to Visible Pedagogy.