In this post, J. Sumerau asks us to consider and reflect upon what teaching feels like and how such feelings may vary and / or be illustrative in relation to different people, approaches, and social locations.
This week I experience one of my favorite times of the year – the beginning of classes for a new academic year. As I walk to and through campus, all the signs are there that a new year has begun. Some of the students are excited, others are nervous, and still more seem just plain lost as they look around for some kind of guidance. Some of the faculty are bouncing around with glee, others appear annoyed beyond belief, and still more are arguing about parking. I always experience a mixture of fear and exhilaration personally, which I figured I’d write about for a bit since it makes me wonder about variations in how teaching feels for different people.
In terms of fear, I find myself locking up – physically, emotionally, and even mentally – this time of year with anxiety about the fact that I must talk to and deal with people constantly from this point forward after a summer usually spent mostly in isolation – or as some friends say “hiding in my cave.” While my students rarely believe it until they see me outside of school, I’m not very social and interpersonal interactions are often very difficult for me to navigate so when I’m able to I simply avoid interacting with people (I prefer to watch them from a distance so to speak as I roam around cities alone listening to random conversations and / or whatever records I’m interested in at the moment). There may be nothing more awkward in my daily or normal routines than the thought of speaking to a room full of people and / or making small talk in a given hallway, and yet these are two of the most common elements of my occupational experience.
Companions who understand this about me sometimes express surprise that I love teaching as a way to make a living and spend my time. The answer lies in the other side of the coin – constantly doing something terrifying is in many ways exhilarating and never boring for me. My life – especially the parts that require human interaction and communication not accomplished via typing – feels like a constant adventure, a kind of boxing match between my fear of people and my desire not to be ruled by fear. While I have friends who spend days and hours deciding exactly what to say and do in classes, I almost never have any clue which of twenty or more outlined directions any given class might go. If I try to be more specific than that – as I learned by trying to do so in graduate school – I lock up, have a panic attack, and can’t speak. For whatever reason, deciding exactly what to say ahead of time creates more anxiety because I then worry about going off script or forgetting something important so – in much the same way I approach presentations at conferences – I instead come up with a bunch of different possible scenarios and then read my audience for cues as to what might be fun and useful (i.e., the same way I navigate interpersonal interactions outside the classroom).
If there is anything I have learned over the years, it is that there may be an unlimited amount of ways to teach well, experience classrooms, and manage the self and the class in educational endeavors. From the colleague I know that designs a specific game for each concept to the colleague I know that maps out every possible student response so ze has an example and / or resource ready at hand at all times, people prepare and experience classrooms in a wide variety of ways. From the colleague that giggles whenever anyone says “course prep” because ze does not do any of that “boring stuff” and instead uses improv experience to run classrooms based on topics ze already knows well to the colleague who spends the entire summer preparing detailed and sophisticated lectures with graphs and charts because the structure eases their own anxiety about talking in public, the spectrum of possible approaches suggests – and I admit I’ve benefited from personally thanks to countless conversations with others on the matter – a wealth of information to be found sharing teaching approaches, experiences, and styles with one another.
These simple observations about the experience of and approaches to teaching lead me to wonder how others experience these dynamics. While rarely mentioned or written about (that I have seen) aside from social media posts here and there and online groups where teachers share frustrations and celebrations during the year, the way it feels to teach is likely a fascinating topic and would likely reveal a lot about the ways educators navigate the world and their lives within it. As I continue enjoying the fear and exhilaration of my own latest week one, I thus ask us all to reflect on what it feels like to teach and what lessons we could learn about teaching and ourselves from such reflection.