Teaching the students you have
A reminder to myself as I return to the classroom for the first time in nearly four years
This week’s post will be a little shorter than usual. It’s been a week of crises chez nous, but in the midst of it all I was lucky enough to have a class to teach, which always takes my mind off my troubles and helps me apply myself to helping others.
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I mentioned earlier this week that this is my first time back in the physical, real-world classroom in several years. Thanks to things like a brief period of unemployment, generous amounts of research time, and that small matter of COVID, I haven’t been teaching in a physical classroom since the autumn of 2019. That’s the longest I’ve been outside of a classroom since I started teaching more than twenty years ago.
Teaching was my first love as a medievalist. I loved introducing students to texts I was still exploring, and to texts I’d learned to love long ago. I loved how conversations with a student could spark new ideas for each of us. Even after classes that had been challenging to teach, I came away buzzing with fresh enthusiasm.
But one of the most important lessons I learned as a teacher of was one I learned several years after I started teaching medieval literature.
By this point, I was a pretty confident teacher. I had experience, enthusiasm, and energy, and I was eager to strike out on my own by designing new courses and teaching on new topics. I was thrilled to be starting my first postdoctoral teaching position at a university in London, one of my favourite cities.
So when I walked into the classroom of a first-year survey course that autumn, I felt like I knew what I was doing.
I opened with my usual spiel: Welcome! This is what we’ll be studying this term. You’ve already heard a bit about this topic in the lecture, and you’ve done some reading for today. What do you think about what you’ve read so far?
And in response I got…crickets.
I can’t remember what I followed those opening remarks with, but I know it was another question or two because it took another couple of tries before I realised I wasn’t going to get anywhere with the open-ended approach I was using.
Here’s the thing: I had a plan for that class. I had a class outline with discussion points and questions to help prompt discussion. In my opinion, I had the works. What I didn’t have, though, was a clear sense of who my students were. I didn’t have a sense of who I was teaching.
All of my previous experience of teaching medieval literature had been in a very specific context. I had taught students who had already been studying medieval English literature before I met them, and who’d been studying English literature intensively for at least a year. I had also been teaching within a system that emphasized one-to-one supervision (or something close to it), which meant that the students I had taught there came to class knowing they would have to do a lot of the talking.
My new university was different. Many of my students were the first in their families to attend university. Most were the first in their families to be studying English literature. And pretty much all of my students were encountering medieval literature for the very first time in their lives. Plus, this was Day 1 of one of the very first courses they would take at a university where all of the teaching was delivered via lectures, seminars, and workshops.
In other words, what I was doing wasn’t going to get us anywhere at all.
I did manage to turn things around that day with a bit of small-group discussion of specific passages, which helped students to get more comfortable. But I’ve never forgotten that first big failure in the classroom. It taught me the most important lesson I’ve learned as a teacher: you have to teach the students you have in the classroom, not the students you’ve had in the past (or the students you might wish you had). Regardless of how experienced you are as a teacher, if you don’t adapt to your students’ needs, if you insist on doing what you’ve always done simply because that’s how you’ve always done things, you’re going to get nowhere fast.
As I head into my second class meeting of the semester, I’m keeping this lesson at the front of my mind. I’m remembering where the silences were in our first class meeting, and I’m remembering what questions and strategies seemed to work (and which ones didn’t). My co-teacher and I will keep on noticing these things and adapting over the course of the semester, creating more structure and support where they’re needed, and creating more space for free discussion when students seem comfortable with it.
For all of you out there heading back into your own classrooms, I send you solidarity and bon courage. You’ve got this!