For the past few weeks, I’ve been unable to decide how and where to start my posts on teaching reflections, but I’ve decided to make it simple and begin where everything has to begin: from the start. It is great that I get to write about the very beginning of my journey in teaching. It offers me a rare opportunity to talk about my anxieties, failures, and vulnerabilities in the profession and write about some of my first memories of teaching, which tend to dissipate and disappear into forgetfulness after some time. So, I decided to use this post as my lowest mark on the growth chart, a reference point on which I can keep track of my experiences in the Humanities Alliance program and how it is helping me develop a more concrete teaching philosophy and persona through experience and reflection. Hopefully, this will provide other new teachers as well as future fellows a point of engagement and encouragement.
Last Monday, I made my belated debut as a teacher in my faculty mentor, Dr. Joni Schwartz’s class. I have been shadowing her class closely since the beginning of the semester, attending every class. Instead of being taxing, this has been a gratifying experience for me in multiple ways. Having never experienced an American college setting and being unfamiliar with the concept of a community college, shadowing the class gave me a chance to familiarize myself with the environment and the student body. My position as a mentee and a soon-to-be instructor offered me a new kind of spectatorship, through which I could engage with those on both sides of the podium: the students and the lecturer. Sitting in the class, I could not only peek into Joni’s bag of experience and know-how, but also interact with the students by participating in the class activities and observe how students responded to the class. This gradually dispelled my fears about becoming a teacher.
The transformation to a teacher neither happens at once nor neatly. For this class, I spent much time preparing and practicing, but the actual experience was more nerve-wracking than I had anticipated. The pressure to deliver a well-prepared lecture and to present myself as a teacher to the audience took over, and the class ended up being a hurried lesson, failing to generate interaction with and among the students (a rather embarrassing and paradoxical outcome considering the course was titled “Fundamentals of Speech Communication”). Even with the subject of the day being social media—something that many students should have been excited to discuss—in my rigid, scripted planning I didn’t allow much room for students to engage. As a result, the class ended on a rather anticlimactic, lukewarm note. After class, Joni’s students gave me supportive, sincere, generous, and helpful feedback on how the class might be improved: most notably, of course, they recommended more interaction. The feeling was mutual. Perhaps, I learned more from the students’ feedback than I was able to teach them.
Reflecting on that class, I realized that part of the reason for the unsatisfactory outcome was that I was too focused on and self-conscious about my own performance. Being new to the podium, I didn’t want things to go wrong and, therefore, I wanted to be as much in control of the classroom situation as possible. In a way, I subconsciously corseted myself into a tightly scripted role, and in my attempt to conceal my vulnerabilities as a newbie, I revealed myself as one. So, my obvious, yet hard-learned lesson is that the communication that takes place in the classroom is not unidirectional. The classroom—especially a humanities classroom—is not like an auditorium or a stage where the teacher stands separated from the students by the limelight to deliver memorized lines, but is more like a rehearsal space where ideas are exchanged and where new methods are put into experiment and revised.
I envision my future classrooms as a rehearsal space for both the students and myself. By comparing a classroom to a rehearsal space, I am not suggesting that this allows for a lack of commitment or professionalism. Rather, it is a space where learning takes places in multiple directions and layers. Unlike the stage reserved for a final, refined product, the rehearsal room is a process-oriented and flexible space reserved for practice and growth. It is a space where you’re allowed to experiment, to revise and start again, should things go wrong. It is a safe place where you’re permitted to be vulnerable and imperfect. In rehearsals you learn how to fall without hurting yourself. In rehearsals your partner will prompt you, should you forget the lines. And, eventually, we help each other grow in the process of working collectively for a shared goal.
So, this experience has taught me to see my own anxieties and vulnerabilities as a new teacher in a different light. Rather than trying to keep myself within the limits of a scripted role for fear of mistakes, hopefully in the spring semester, I’ll open up more space for myself to improvise and to play alongside other actors—the students—in the room; to fail again, but fail better.