13 May 2014

First Term Wrap-Up: I Survived Teaching at College!

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Hello, all.

My first semester as an adjunct professor wrapped on Thursday, May 8th and I've finished up all of my grading. That means I'm done with NC State until the fall, when I will be teaching a full load of English Composition classes again. Huzzah!

I feel incredibly lucky to have nabbed the opportunity to teach. It's been a lifelong dream and part of the reason why I chose Seton Hill University as my graduate school of choice: I'm in the business of teaching writing. Of course I'm in the writing business as well, but as far as dream jobs go, being a professor and teaching college English is a huge deal, because I've met a goal that is immediately tangible.

Coming into teaching for the first time, I had a lot of expectations and misconceptions. Several of my fellow writing friends are interested in teaching at the college level, too, and expressed interest in my experience as a first-time teacher. I thought I'd share with you some of the things I've learned.

1) It helps to understand what being an Adjunct Professor entails. Stating the obvious, right? When I was hired, I knew that an adjunct professor does not have tenure, and works part-time. I knew that I would not have benefits, either. But one of the things I realized is that adjuncts--truly any kind of teacher--do not get paid for the actual hours they work. There's a limit to how much time you're allowed to put into the job--in my case, 29 hours--but if you add together grading, mentor meetings, student meetings, meetings with the dean, and staying after class to help students with homework--I know I've put in 40 hours or more a week. But I only taught eleven hours, so that's what I get paid for.

I heard the rumors that pay for adjuncts was rough, and although my hourly wage sounds impressive, when you count the number of hours worked, it's depressing. This is by no means has anything to do with my college specifically; it's an ongoing issue for all teachers, regardless of what they teach or where they work. You seriously cannot make a decent living doing this kind of work, and being an adjunct professor taught me this. The even more-important lesson that everyone should take away from this: if teachers cannot survive on their pay and hours worked, then why don't they leave? The answer is clear:
Teachers do it because they love it. 
When you think about everything educators are up against today, no other reason makes sense.  I have never before appreciated what every single one of my teachers and professors have gone through until I started teaching.

2) Most of the time, you're teaching a curriculum already designed by the college. But this doesn't mean you can't put your own stamp on things! When I was handed textbooks and a syllabus, I made the mistake of believing that I absolutely had to do everything perfectly and word-for-word from what was given to me. I stressed myself out thinking I had to completely do things one way, and one way only. This was a very stupid mistake on my part. Once I realized I had more freedom in the classroom than what I thought, stress began to melt away big time. I didn't feel guilty anymore about rearranging class schedules or coming up with spontaneous lessons, or even abandoning my electronic-only stance. You know what would've helped me from all of this? Asking questions and asking for help. NC State has been nothing but supportive in shaping me into a professor, and all I had to do was open my mouth and rely on others for help. Lesson learned.

3) You will hear the weirdest excuses for everything. Even weirder is when you find out they are true. I've had students tell me about spontaneous surgeries, car accidents, summonses to court, surprise pregnancies, trips to hospitals, and deaths in the family, all as excuses for missing class. And boy, did this semester show me that the amount of students who stop attending or skip classes is ridiculous. So when students would give me these excuses, I'd struggle with whether or not to dock attendance points, because the situations may be extreme, but are still plausible. Well...like 99% of all of these stories checked out as legit. Which made me realize that students do tell the truth. Sometimes the dog does eat the homework.

4) Try not to get too emotionally involved. Try not to worry about what students think of you. For the most part, I feel like my term was successful. My coworkers who observed me said very positive things about me, which definitely is a boost in the self-esteem department. The students, though...this is tricky. I naively thought that I was OK enough for all my students to pretty much like me. I couldn't think of a reason why students would hate me. Well, guess what. People like you or hate you for imagined reasons, real reasons, or stupid reasons, and you don't have control over what they think. All you can do is work hard and take the job seriously.

I found this out through some yucky situations with some students this term. It didn't matter what I said or did, they made it up in their minds that I sucked, even over some of the most trivial things ever. One student heard in my opening class speech that my graduate background is in popular fiction and pop culture. The moment I said I liked video games, superheroes, and Harry Potter was the moment the student thought I was a shitty teacher and threw obstacles at me every step of the way. S-s-s-sabotage!

With openly hostile students, you can learn a couple of interesting things: hostile students will put more effort into causing you trouble and trying to get you fired as opposed to putting that effort into their own education. The students who dislike you and think you're a poor teacher also happen to be the students who skip class and don't take responsibility for themselves. Huh.

I didn't really go out of my way to make students like me or hate me. I thought I was pretty amiable and understanding, and it still surprised me when I heard criticism about the way I do things. Once I received validation from professionals and coworkers, I felt better...but really, the only cure for this sensitivity is time and experience.

5) Teaching is stressful. Sometimes it's crazy. Sometimes it's fun. It's definitely rewarding. But overall, this is a dream come true and I couldn't have asked for a better career.

I do this because I love it.

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