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I’ve been spending unpaid hours the past few days preparing to teach another semester of introductory biology, and one of the lessons I learned last semester has returned to haunt me: teaching is hard. Well, GOOD teaching is hard.

Many of you would classify that observation in the “duh” category, but judging by what teachers get paid and by the bogglingly stupid aphorism “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” there are plenty of folks out there who believe teaching a sinecure with long, lazy summers. I didn’t quite grasp the challenge until it was staring me in the face—a classroom of students on the first day.

Artist's rendition of students staring me in the face on the first day of class.

Artist's rendition of students staring me in the face on the first day of class.

To my teachers, I send a heartfelt apology—I didn’t appreciate you enough. For those of you who have never taught before, I will attempt to explain why my first year of teaching was such a challenge. There is so much to deal with, I could easily write a book, but I’ve tried to compress it into a lengthy blog post instead.

For any new hire in a large institution, there are operational processes and office politics to figure out. How do I make copies? How do I reserve library materials and order laboratory supplies? Who fixes computer glitches or plumbing problems, and how quickly? How do I access student rosters and operate the electronic grades submission system? What do I do if I need time off? What are the personality quirks and pet peeves of my co-workers? Who is the best person to ask questions of? Are there people who will take advantage of me? Who are the experts on what subjects, and are there turf battles?

Learning how to operate in my institutional environment hasn’t been too hard. The tough part is the actual teaching, which involves three areas of expertise: students, subject matter, and teaching techniques.

Students

Beyond the normal office relationships, teaching requires appropriate interpersonal relationships with hundreds of students—new ones every semester. Community colleges in particular can be more challenging because of the mix of students involved, and their variety of educational backgrounds, life experiences, and ages. To better draw these diverse students into a class and help them succeed, I need to show interest in them as individuals and help them feel comfortable. In one class I might have:

  • a newly minted high school graduate
  • a student making another attempt at higher ed after failing out of a university
  • a newlywed
  • a single parent
  • a laid-off factory worker
  • a divorced person suddenly needing a better-paying job
  • a mid-careerperson looking to get ahead
  • a retiree wanting to keep their mind sharp

Interpersonal relationships and classroom behavior

A huge portion of a community college instructor’s success lies in the ability to relate to and manage students. An instructor needs to maintain authority, yet remain approachable. The part-time faculty guidebook at my college cites traits of a successful community college instructor that I would summarize as describing a psychologically well-grounded person:

  • Emotionally stable and mature
  • Confident in resolving their own personal problems
  • Reasonably unselfish, modest, and free from excessive ego

I can see where these attributes come in handy, given the situations that arise in class. Here are some behavioral issues I’ve dealt with in the past year:

  • a student whose constant refrain in class is “this sucks”
  • a student physically cornering me after class because they want to discuss course policies they don’t like
  • a student winking at me and making suggestive statements
  • a student trying to milk assignment answers out of me, then yelling and accusing me of trying to confuse things
  • a student raising and pushing a racially charged falsehood in a mixed-race classroom
  • students discussing how much they despise certain cultural groups
  • a student who loves to dominate class time with nonsequitur monologues
  • a student who sleeps in the back of the room every class period

Student policies

The interpersonal dimension of working with students is linked to institutional policies involving students, and the nuances of the policies as they’re written and practiced. How do the privacy guarantees under FERPA affect what I can say? When am I permitted or required to drop a student from a class? What do I do with student athlete progress report requests from the athletic department? How do I handle a student who managed to enroll in my class without meeting administrative requirements? How do I handle students who want to enroll in my class after the semester has begun?

The three policy issues that were most important to me during my first semester were my course syllabus, the college academic honesty policy, and student requests to make up missed work or turn assignments in late.

Course syllabus

The item of course preparation that causes me the most heartburn is the course syllabus. This sets the foundation of expectations for the class and serves as a contract for how the class will be operated. I am not a lawyer, and I get nervous drafting a document about which my part-time faculty guide reminds me:

If a student goes to the grievance committee or the courts, the course syllabus becomes the primary piece of reference. Write it based on the assumption that you will have to defend it. We are in an era of student challenges, and you need to be prepared.

Granted, I can use other instructors’ syllabi as templates. Still, I go over my syllabus again and again, wondering where the loopholes are (the students will find them!) and how I can draft things to make my life easier.

Makeups and late work

One of the toughest issues for me to deal with is finding a just balance between syllabus policies and legitimate exceptions for students who miss class or want to turn in late assignments. Students are people too, and have lives and dramas outside the classroom. Some of them miss class because of jobs, court dates, personal illness, or sick children. Some of them simply disappear for days on end, then show up again without explanation. I have to make judgments about when and how to allow flexibility.

Academic honesty

I think every teacher starts out believing the best of students, that they would never cheat. Then reality hits. Three students’ assignments are identical, two students’ odd answers on a homework assignment are suspiciously similar, a block of essay text is too well written, a forgotten crib sheet is found after an exam. When I uncover these incidents in my classes, I must enforce the academic honesty policy and take on the role of a cheating investigator: talk to the parties involved, decide on a plan of corrective action, and file a report. This investigator role is very unpleasant, but is a critical part of those students’ education.

Learning to manage a classroom of students was my most immediate challenge in my first year. With more experience, I think student management will become easier (though surely there will always be a few “difficult” students). The other two major challenges I faced – course subject matter and teaching techniques – I believe are never-ending processes. While a good platform of subject matter and teaching techniques can be built up for a particular class, the platform must be flexible to respond to changing needs and information.

Subject matter

The first order of business in course development is figuring out what topics to cover. Sometimes, a course catalog lays out the required topics, but the instructor isn’t off the hook. It’s not that simple.

Say the catalog states that the course must cover DNA, RNA, and protein synthesis. Sure, that sounds straightforward, until I start to consider the appropriate level of detail to include. Do the students know what DNA is? What protein is? Do they know why the structure of these molecules is important? Do they know what a molecule is? What will the students need this information for? Will they be using this class as a prerequisite to another class? What are they expected to know upon entering that class? Do they just need to understand generally how gene expression influences health to be able to understand news reports or doctor’s instructions? Or do they need to understand more detail about the mechanics of the process? Should introns, exons, and micro RNA be discussed so students better understand a later unit on biotechnology?

If I’m teaching a topic, the students tend to view me as a subject expert. To feel comfortable in front of a class, I need to have a really solid understanding of the subject I’m teaching, so I can answer questions coherently. However, there will always be student questions I can’t answer. I need to be familiar enough with the subject area that I know where to look up the information or, better yet, help the students figure out where they can find the answers themselves.

An especial challenge of teaching science is inherent in the discipline. By its nature, science is a constant process of challenging theories, developing new hypotheses, and making new discoveries. The information in science texts is outdated by the time it gets published. As a science teacher, I am obligated to keep up with the flow of information to make sure what I’m teaching my students is up to date.

Teaching technique

Once I’ve figured out the topics to include in a class, I need to figure out how to transfer to my students both the information included in the course. Lacking the ability to simply download everything directly into the students’ brains, I need to make the students want to learn. I need to spark student interest in the topic and present all this “science stuff” as being fun and relevant to their lives. I need to be entertaining and put on a good, organized lecture audience-participation show. I need to help students understand why all this stuff matters and help them relate it to concepts they already understand from previous experience (which can be tough in a diverse community college class).

People process information in different ways, and students may not understand that they each have a different learning style that they can use to their own benefit. I can help by talking about how I manage to learn all the stuff I’m teaching. I can also find different methods of conveying information. I know I can’t just stand at the front of the room and talk at students and expect them to learn. For each topic I teach, I need to figure out the best combination of techniques: lecture, reading (textbook or articles), lab, worksheet, computer assignment, writing assignment (short response or essay), group discussion, modeling, acting out—anything that might work.

There’s also the challenge of teaching students with vastly different academic backgrounds and physical or cognitive abilities. Despite course prerequisites, some students might need help with basic skills like reading, math, or study techniques. Part of my responsibility as a teacher is to identify these students and point them in the direction of the college resources that can help get them up to speed. Some students need accommodation under the ADA, and I may need to provide extra time on exams, or solicit a note-taker in the class, or make my lecture outline available.

I can go through a ton of effort to find ways of getting through to my students, but I won’t know if they’ve gotten the message unless I find a way to test them on it. But how do you figure out if a student is learning? What do you ask them, and how? I know I’ve taken tests before that didn’t match the information I thought I needed to know for class. I need to clearly communicate to my students what I expect them to know, and design assessments that will determine if they know it. Student assessment is not a simple topic; it has been the subject of several prep-week meetings at my college this academic year, and volumes have been written about it. Part of the trouble is that “assessment” isn’t synonymous with “test”. There is more to assessment than deciding whether to use essay, short answer, or multiple-choice formats.

I could ramble on for pages more about the nuances of student assessment from the viewpoint of a first-year teacher, but my head is swimming from all the above STUFF I will face in the upcoming semester (and I have it easy; as a part-time, temporary instructor, I don’t have the additional obligations to serve on committees, participate in professional societies, advise student groups, etc.). I will stop here to spare you further pain.

In summary, teaching is hard. Especially for a perfectionist like me. Teaching is not a science—it is an art, and there can be no perfection in art, no matter how much I work. The joy in the job is partly that as well. For a lifelong learner, teaching provides a constant challenge to learn about geeky-cool science stuff, to learn about teaching, and to learn from my students. Let the semester begin!

Text copyright 2009 by Katie Bradshaw

Images in composite credited to bigdodaddy, dmy, harrykeely, obyvatel, larar, jervexster, arinas74, and ontzy of sxc.hu

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