Teaching is hard. Since returning from maternity leave in January I have taught and will teach eleven courses, ten are new this year and all are outside of my area of specialty. I love working with students, but sometimes it can be draining. The students are becoming increasingly diverse, with a wide range of academic abilities. Sometimes I struggle to meet their needs.
Yes, teaching is hard and sometimes it can be frustrating. And despite the annoying emails, or challenging moments, sometimes we need to remember where students are coming from. Last week I read an article on Active History, that was a good reminder. Elise Chenier, deals with students similar to mine. They are “largely from lower to middle-income families and attended a public school in the surrounding region. Many hold down one or more part-time jobs, and often are responsible for the care of family members, and sometimes have children of their own.” I too went to Queen’s and art history has to be one of the snobbiest disciplines. Chenier provided food for thought.
She observes how in thinking about her own professional practices she has:
become particularly attuned to how learning requires us to voluntarily enter a state of vulnerability. We must be willing to risk venturing beyond our certainties; to be confused, disoriented, and uncomfortable; to suffer the humiliation of offering a potentially wrong answer in front of our peers and instructors.
The more we make vulnerability possible, the more likely deep and transformative learning will happen. We can do this by reducing the risks (be aware of how little it takes for a person to feel the shame of another’s judgment; avoid the temptation to admonish) and increasing the supports (encourage rather than judge; query and listen rather than assess; be honest about when we have struggled and perhaps failed, and when we don’t know the answers). This is not a new requirement for a “snowflake” generation. It is simply good teaching.
Chenier ends her piece with these lines that have now become my favourite quote about teaching. Next time I am frustrated and don’t know where to begin I must remember:
You start where your students are. You start by letting go of your idea of who you are and cultivating a curiosity about who they are. You start by making yourself smaller, and them bigger.