You go one of three routes when you graduate from an MFA program: you pursue writing full-time, you return to your old job now declaring you can write, or you become a teacher.
By August 2018, reality had cooled me and my friends’ idealistic post grad dreams. We still wrote from time to time, but now we had to make some kind of living. I made mine by teaching English at a community college.
I had previous experience as a teaching fellow—a job made incredibly fun by a great mentor and a crop of amazing students. But I quickly learned to not compare being a teaching fellow with being an actual teacher.
For one thing, the environments were totally different socioeconomically. Most of my own students came from lower-class families or lower-tier schools, which meant their English education had been of significantly lower quality. Much of what I felt was common knowledge about English or essay writing was new to these kids. And that was beyond frustrating. I dreaded grading because I knew the same “stupid” mistakes would pop up time and again. In moments when my frustration at these mistakes bubbled into rage, I almost convinced myself I was teaching a bunch of idiots.
The fact is, I was realizing just how little American students could be taught about English. And it frustrated and horrified me all at once. How could an eighteen- or even fifty-year-old possibly not know the difference between “you’re” and “your”?
Sounds like a comedic sketch, doesn’t it: put an overeducated grammar Nazi teacher into a class of disinterested or ignorant students, and wait for the teacher to lose their cool.
It’s true that, much of the time, I was frustrated, lost, overwhelmed, and floundering—just like any workplace newbie. But there was one surprising little thing that kept me going.
I loved my students. Yes, they tested my nerves, but I still wanted to do right by them. I wanted to give them the English education that perhaps they never received. And if I had to work my butt off correcting all their mistakes and explaining MLA style for the fiftieth time—if it got them closer to achieving their dreams—then so be it.
As of August of this year, I have officially passed my first year as an adjunct. I’m no expert in the adjuncting world, but I like to think that I am in a different place than last August.
Remember, you’re not just teaching college-age kids. You have adults with commitments like children, babysitters, relatives, as well as jobs. Outside emergencies may prevent some students from coming to class, or require them to step outside for a phone call. Don’t get angry at students for not sticking to your schedule if they have honest commitments. Being flexible also means being patient.
Prepare to work
Depending on your school of employment, how many credit hours you’re allowed to teach varies. That also depends on how many classes you manage to snag each semester. But either way, you have to keep track of several different students with different learning paces and learning needs. Some students might require extensions because of disability accommodations, or you might schedule several meetings to provide extra help. Your number one priority is always, always your students, but you have to still be mindful of your own health. Speaking of…
Take care of yourself
Make no mistake, you might have to work a twelve-hour day to get four classes’ final exams graded and turned in, but you should never, ever lose yourself to the grind. Even if it means taking five minutes between each paper to breathe and meditate, you have to slow down every once in a while. Yes, hard work and persistence are important, but so is making sure that you are centered and present so you can do your best work.
If at first you don’t teach right, try, try again
Teaching is an evolving practice. Not just because new material comes about year in and year out, but because it is also filled to the brim with trial and error. Don’t be afraid to tweak assignments or lessons if they don’t work. For instance, for a few semesters, I asked my students to practice evaluation by analyzing a short film we’d watched in class. But because this was a solo assignment, they turned in lots of summary and very little analysis. So eventually, I decided to turn it into an in-class assignment, where they could discuss among each other what made the short film good or bad. Not only did my students bond over what they liked and didn’t like, but they produced much better analyses with each other’s help. After that, their evaluative assignment grades skyrocketed—because I took a chance with another method.
Whether you know it or not, your students have other concerns besides what’s happening in your class. Being kind is every teacher’s responsibility, but especially toward freshman students getting used to a college schedule. Who knows? Your class period might be the only bright spot in a student’s day. I’m not saying you should hope your students’ lives are miserable to make your class a saving grace, though. Whatever’s happening in your students’ lives, extend kindness and courtesy to them.
Be the professor you loved most
After my first semester evaluation, my English Department Chair gave me one big piece of advice: relax. Fortunately, my Chair was understanding of my anxiety, and our conversation got me thinking about what I expected from my own college professors. It all came down to two things: that they respected what I had to say, and that their personalities and interests bled into classroom conversation. Once I learned to embrace these principles, I not only had more fun in class, but so did my students.
Obviously, teaching is not always a walk in the park, but neither is any vocation. When I graduated last spring, I did not expect to wind up a teacher, but the fact that I earn a small living teaching what I love most is a blessing. It just took several mistakes and much floundering in the dark to make it this far.