There’s the pedagogy you ascribe to and the pedagogy you admit to, and some days they are actually the same. Some days…they aren’t.
One of the hardest things about being a teacher educator is knowing that you don’t always manage to practice what you teach. You know that students need time to process what you’re asking them to do but you’re just so frustrated that they are reluctant to talk. You know that students need meaningful feedback on their writing to improve but you’re just so tired of grading papers. You know that students are products of their educational environment but you’re just so irritated when they don’t follow your educational expectations. You know that students aren’t motivated by negative reinforcement but you’re just so fed up that you lecture them anyway.
Teaching is always a mixture of right and wrong, positive and negative, knowledge and guesswork, “that was perfect!” and “good lord, I hope no one saw that,” “things went so well today!” and “I have no idea why they allow me in a classroom.” Accepting that constant slide across the continuum of doing it well and doing it not-well is difficult. You can know what you’re doing; you can know what you’re supposed to do; you can teach others how it should be done; and you can still do it wrong. Each day is different and each student is different, and the differences rarely align in the same pattern on any given day. Experience is helpful as a teacher – at the least, you know enough to recognise the continuum – but it doesn’t assure success.
The first year of teaching is always an expedition into the unknown, and starting in a new place is always a first year. My academic year in Romania is almost over – just a month left now – and it has been a constant slide. This year has offered all sorts of opportunities to grow and learn as a teacher; it’s also offered all sorts of opportunities to fail as a teacher – which, I can assure you, is not a pleasant pedagogical place for a professor. You’d like to think, after 20 years as an educator (…good lord…), that you’ve got this teaching thing down but, well, that’s not how it works.
I tell my students many things (…you’re welcome…) but one constant refrain is the need to challenge themselves or they will stagnate as educators. They must develop new writing assignments and assign new short stories and incorporate new instructional strategies and try different classroom configurations. They need to take a class or join a book club or learn a language or complete a workshop. They should travel to new places, talk to different people, read difficult books, consider divergent perspectives. It doesn’t matter what they do, really, as long as it pushes them to think in some way. Whatever they do will influence their teaching in some way because it will affect them in some way.
Here, at least, I can claim to follow my own advice. Teaching here has been a challenge for me, a constant slide on the continuum, a first year. I’ve implemented what I know about teaching and learning but I’ve also fumbled my way through pedagogical experimentation. All the possible what-ifs my students share, wide-eyed with the knowledge that they will be responsible for those ifs: I dealt with those this year. What if the students don’t read? What if the students aren’t interested in the material? What if they come to class unprepared? What if they don’t come to class? What if they don’t do their homework? What if they plagiarise in a paper? What if they fail an assignment? What if they fail the class? What if they don’t like me? What if I don’t like them? What if I don’t know what to do? What if they know I don’t know what to do?
Some I managed well; some I could have managed better; some I have to wonder what I was thinking. All of it has given me plenty of food for thought. Reflection is another thing I stress with my students, and I can honestly say I’ve done a great deal of that in the past seven months. Why did I struggle with their silences when I’m used to drawing out reluctant students? Why did I decide to revise the course this way when that way would have been better for them? Why did I connect with that class of students better than I did with the other class of students? Why couldn’t I develop a coherent approach to the material when I literally develop curriculum for a living?
Revisiting my teaching, practically and reflectively, has been good for me. It’s helped me see my strengths and, more importantly, the areas in which I could improve. It’s started the wheels turning as I consider what changes I’ll make to my classes in the fall. It’s caused me to fail in ways I haven’t since my first years of teaching. It’s reassured me that I love the work of teaching as well as undergraduate students and university classroom. And it’s exactly the kind of challenge I expect my students to embrace.