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Academic life

What we bring to the classroom

The first episode of Queer Eye S4 featured a former teacher of host Jonathan, a woman who ran the high school music and theatre programs with legendary commitment and care. This episode had me openly weeping before the Fab 5 even walked into the school. By the end of the show, I was feeling all the warm fuzzies about my role as a teacher. I was excited to think about coming back to the classroom and being the best teacher I can be for a new crop of students.

But what does that look like? How much time and energy should it take? What’s the necessary amount of preparation for each course or classroom hour? These are the questions that bedevil most of us as we try to balance the many different requirements of our jobs and personal lives. Teaching preparation is a huge part of our work, and it’s difficult to know when you’re “done”. Can you ever be too prepared? Do you over-prepare due to anxiety? Is it a tactic to avoid working on other things? All of these factors affect me and many of my clients and colleagues, too.

Of course we can’t ignore the structural. If you’re adjuncting at different universities and your teaching assignments change from year to year, preparation is basically never-ending, under-compensated, and all-consuming. There’s only so much “balance” that anyone could strive for in this situation. New full-time faculty members are also burdened with a lot of new preps. It might be years before their roster of courses is stable and predictable. Tenured/senior faculty have the benefit of fewer new preps and accumulated experience as well as class materials. However, they face the challenge of keeping courses fresh and responding to new university mandates, like experiential learning, accessibility, and Indigenization.

Teaching preparation: more than lecture notes

Over-preparation is a common problem. Although the stereotype of the absent-minded professor applies to some of us, in my experience the modern faculty is highly professional and carefully prepared. This is to the good. I think our students deserve to feel like they’re in organized, capable hands. But this doesn’t mean your prep has to account for every possible question, objection, misunderstanding, or moment of silence. Nonetheless, a lot of us are devoting hours we don’t have (i.e. sacrificing sleep and personal time) to extra background reading, making super-detailed notes, prepping activities, and scouting extra resources.

There are certainly some practical ways to tackle over-preparation. And I promise to talk about those in a future post! Right now I’m thinking about the importance of what we bring to the classroom beyond of all our notes and activities. I want to start asking myself not “what am I showing up with today?,” but “how am I showing up today?”

What I mean is this: What values and qualities are you bringing into the classroom today? These might have little to do with the content of your notes. But they’re probably what your students will remember, if not consciously then on a visceral level. In his brilliant memoir Heavy, Kiese Laymon writes about his mother’s practice as a university professor struggling to provide the best education for her mostly Black students in the South. As Kiese prepares to start his first classes as an adjunct at Vassar, she tells him: “Help them breathe by modelling responsible love in the classroom every single day. The most important thing a teacher can do is give their students permission to be loving and excellent.”

What values am I showing up with today?

Of the many things that stuck with me after reading Heavy, the idea of showing up with love in the classroom has been one of the most thought-provoking. It made me wonder if I could stop worrying so much about what materials I’m bringing on any given day, and devote a little more attention to what values I’m modelling. These might be values and qualities like:

  • compassion
  • curiosity
  • love
  • respect
  • justice
  • passion
  • joy
  • understanding
  • care
  • discovery
  • sharing
  • collaboration

Choosing one or two of these qualities to embody for a particular class might allow you to lessen the death grip on the perfect lecture notes for a moment. To remember what special characteristics you, as a unique individual, bring to the classroom beyond your knowledge of a topic. To think about what you have to give to your students that might last way longer than the content of the course.

I want to be clear that I don’t advocate giving everything of yourself to your students or your teaching. Gendered and racialized emotional labour in the classroom is REAL. Boundaries are necessary (and I might add, part of responsible love). Showing up with care and compassion doesn’t mean letting anyone trample your emotional or course-based boundaries. I know it’s easier said than done. What I’m suggesting is more about modelling ways to be in the world that include self-love, self-compassion, and self-care.

September is coming

As the new teaching semester approaches, I’m hoping that this slight shift in emphasis will help when I’m tempted to over-prepare or feeling anxious that I’m not ready for class. Focusing on what I already have to bring (love, care, compassion…) might mean less time worrying about what I don’t have (answers to every question, super fun activities…). It won’t be perfect. Kiese Laymon writes about failing his students in more ways than he ever imagined. But if we don’t try to show up with these values at the top of our minds, we might be failing before we even set foot in the room.

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