Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Learning to be a teacher

We all have our strengths and I've never considered "deals well with people" to be one of mine - probably a big part of the reason I never considered becoming a teacher. But here I am, in academia, teaching. Obviously I've known for years that I would be teaching at the university level, at least while in graduate school. I've had to attend many teaching workshops and classes as part of my graduate program, and I do take them very seriously because I know I have a lot to learn. I did learn after my first TA experience, which was extremely challenging, that I do sincerely enjoy teaching. Even though it was a difficult course to TA for several reasons, as I'm sure any teacher will tell you, the rewards far outweighed the costs. After that class, I was much more open to a future of teaching.

I am still navigating the the complexities of teaching at the university level - finding my teaching style, learning how to convey expectations to students and what it reasonable to expect, balancing the dry textbook material with examples from my own work, and acting like an authority figure. Last week I had to deal with the aspect of teaching I dislike the most - I had to confront someone about cheating (texting during an exam).

It was such an uncomfortable situation. I'm not a confrontational person, but I had to make a split-second decision to approach the student immediately or ignore the problem. Ignoring it wasn't a very good solution, especially since another student had alerted me to the situation. If I hadn't reacted, I would have been sending a message to the other students that I didn't care if they cheated or I was too timid to deal with someone blatantly breaking the rules. So I confiscated the student's cell phone. The worst part was that after I took the phone, I couldn't figure out how to turn it on. I was thinking "Wow, way to act old, Molly." But I thought quickly-enough and insisted the student show me their texting history.

In hindsight I do think I handled the situation in a responsible way and I don't think there is much I would do differently if I could go back. But I still feel like an imposter in the classroom. The TA who marched up to a student, ripped their exam out from under their pen, and demanded to see their phone was not really me. I never really thought of assertiveness as an attribute that could be learned, but I suppose I am learning how to be in control of a class. I do think it is important, being both a woman and being young, that I act like an authority figure and an adult in front of my classes. Next quarter I'll have to be even more prepared because it will just be me teaching 150 students four days per week. No professor, no labs, no discussion sections.

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