More about teaching

| teaching

Teaching is the most humbling of experiences. There is nothing like
standing there in front of the students and finding yourself speaking,
finding yourself creating meaning. I taught only a little today, but I
taught it well; just enough to give people an idea, just enough to
tempt their interest.

Then it was time to talk to the department chair about leaving. The
department chair peered at me over his papers. “You were a special
admission,” he said. “I’ve never met you until today. I just looked at
your file and thought, ‘This is someone we want to have in our
department. This is someone we want in front of our classrooms.'”

Who am I that these people should take such interest in me? Who am I
that they should trust me with even the smallest responsibility in
marking projects and guiding students through laboratory experiments?
The reason why I hate teaching is that I love it too much to think
myself worthy.

There were some things he didn’t quite understand, or maybe I didn’t
understand them. He told me how teaching assistantships form an
essential part of the university’s funding and how leaving the course
at this point would essentially mean that I might never get a teaching
assistantship again. With the way recommendations work, it might even
mean I never teach in front of a classroom again. He didn’t quite
understand that I was willing to take that failure if that means that
students would get the education they needed—even if that means I
have to go home, master’s degree unfinished and plans awry.

Why do I care so much about a class most people will not even remember
next year? I don’t know. I just do. I’m not arrogant enough to think
that this one class will change their lives, but I can’t tell myself
that it doesn’t matter and that I shouldn’t care.

But I also recognize the trouble I caused the department. At this
point, there is no one who can take my place. Perhaps there has never
been. They knew about my concerns in the beginning, but they
encouraged me to take it. And now we must move, inexorably, toward the
end of the term.

Even now, I’m certain my hesitation has made them think twice. I’ve
caused them a problem. They expected, perhaps, a cooler and more
composed teacher. Someone with plenty of experience, someone who no
longer struggled with the imposter syndrome. I’m not that kind of
teaching assistant yet. I don’t just fit into the system.

I wanted to escape. I wanted someone else to take over so that the
students would be able to learn more than they could otherwise. I
wanted someone who knew the nuances of the field, who could tell
stories about how these things work in the real world.

The department chair reminded me that there are more resources that I
haven’t tapped. There are people I haven’t yet talked to, avenues I
haven’t yet explored. I need to plan better. I need to work better.
I’ll e-mail the previous teaching assistant and ask her to help me
brainstorm project ideas. Why didn’t I think about doing that before?
I guess my brain locked down.

Now that he’s told me about all these things I can do to help cope,
now that I’ve given a class about Weka and found curiosity instead of
the myriad of deep, technical questions I dreaded, now that I’ve
checked things with the students… the class seems more doable. More
workable. I may not know the specifics of Weka and Jess, but I know
enough about them to tell stories, to make them curious, to hint at
the possibilities.

Should I have kept quiet and not told Prof. Shepard about this crisis
of mine? I’ve not been professional. I’ve not handled it with the best
of grace. But I needed to hear that reassurance, and I needed to see
and face the challenge head-on. I accept the consequences of letting
the world know about my insecurities. <wry grin>

My evaluations with the class will suck, no doubt. I’ve called their
attention to my mistakes and my shortcomings. They know that I am not
the best they’ve had, nor even the best I could be.

Practice is hard. Growth hurts. But it’s worth it. I’m learning a
little bit more about dealing with difficult subjects, and I’m growing
much more than I would have teaching something well within my

I am thankful that this is a university so responsive to people’s
cries for help that even a teaching assistant’s panicked concern was
listened to and addressed a day after it was raised.

You can comment with Disqus or you can e-mail me at