On ‘those’ teaching days (weeks, semesters!) that just don’t go to plan: the importance of documenting your ‘little wins’

This was a post I had wanted to write at the end of last semester when I felt I needed to take stock of what had and had not gone to plan in the previous months.  That I didn’t get around to it until mid-January (and that new blog posts have been, ahem, lacking) is perhaps your first clue into whether or not my desire to be an uber-reflexive lecturer went to plan….

I had some great teaching experiences last year but I don’t want to give the false impression that it was sunshine and roses every day.  I had some real ‘funks’ this past semester.  A collision of professional and personal circumstances (yes, let us not forget that what is going on outside the classroom impacts our teaching) made it a challenging semester.  And while I reflect on these and create a list of blog topics to address specific challenges,  I’ve decided to write down my ‘little wins’—the often overlooked or seemingly mundane experiences on which we should all focus when we are feeling like less than effective teachers.   We often put huge expectations on ourselves,  expect to have these huge overall impacts and lose sight of the more tangible day to day  successes of our work.

Here  are my top moments from last semester that a) got me through the not so great days  b) are the types of ‘moments’ that I will keep an eye out for this semester to keep me motivated and c) that I hope can give others going through a rough time in the classroom pause for thought about their own ‘wins’ .

Wait—both of these approaches can be used to justify violence!’  (on those moments where students make an incredible leap forward)

This was my first year teaching a full intro class to incoming undergrads.  Teaching the ‘basics’ is a totally different exercise to teaching  higher level courses to begin with.  Throw into the mix that I am a critical scholar who takes real issue with ‘the basics’ and for me, this class became a huge challenge.  Yes.  It was hard—for me and the students.  Things didn’t always go to plan, and I often found it very hard to tell if they were ‘getting it’.  Now removed from the situation, I realize I was maybe putting too much pressure on myself and my students (there were lots of things I probably didn’t ‘get’ in my undergrad and I turned out OK—intellectually speaking) .  But I also have to reflect on those handful of moments where students took individual, unprompted and unscripted leaps forward:    a first year, after learning the basics of realist and liberal approaches realizing that both  sets of ideas, taken to their logical end could be used to justify violence;   a student in the same class pointing out differences between Berlin’s and Kant’s work after only a few moments of working with the text; another realizing the textbook might be written from a ethnocentric point of view.  I certainly didn’t have these ‘firework’ moments every day, but sometimes reflecting on the individual success stories can help us recognize that we are getting through to our students, even if on the whole we didn’t feel things went particularly well.  I guarantee that for all of you,  no  matter how badly you feel a class is going, there will be similar moments—you just have to keep an eye out for them.  Write them down—keep a ‘great moments’ file at hand that you can return to after a particularly rough day.

 

Let me tell you about Operation Turquoise and extreme vs radical florists (on learning something from your students)

Although I wouldn’t describe all my days in the office as ‘inspirational’, I have been inspired by some of my colleagues who have encouraged me to think of teaching more as an intellectual conversation rather than a simple transmitting of knowledge.  And taking this perspective, I’ve had some truly great moments to draw on looking back. In particular, my peace studies class exposed me to cases and analytical approaches to specific interventions that I’d not been exposed to before.  I was forced to have a bit of a rethink on Rwanda, my understanding of the use of ‘radicalism’ vs ‘extremism’ and the destabilizing effects of freedom.  I also don’t think I have ever said ‘I don’t know—there is no research on that—you should do a PhD on it’  so many times in a semester.  My only wish here is that this kind of experience could have somehow been replicated in my first year classes to a greater degree.  It has made me think about how I can redesign my intro classes so as to allow my students to take more of a lead role in the intellectual conversation so that I am learning and growing alongside of them (instead of the onus being purely on me to ‘teach’)

 

The rolling egg, the penguin dance and  the Kumbaya sing-along (on laughing with your students and not taking things so seriously all the time)

Ask my students (and colleagues), I tell terrible jokes.    Fortunately, some students provided  their own moments of kindness and humour  in the classroom– sometimes unintentionally.   For example, an early morning class was interrupted by an egg, randomly and slowly rolling down the walkway of a tiered lecture hall.  Eventually determined to be a student’s breakfast on the run,  the incident probably did more to lighten the mood and wake up the students more than any of my ‘active learning/let’s get our brains warmed up activities’ ever could have.  Similarly, I had other students recognize the importance loosening up, team building and thinking outside the box—the interpretive dance element  of student presentations is now forever burned in my mind. Creating spaces for students to be creative and to build rapport with you, rather than thinking YOU are entirely responsible for this element of the classroom dynamic is essential.  Capping the term off  with a salute to my self-deferential jokes about peace scholars, to me showed this rapport and respect was there. And fortunately the excellent essays from this group at the end of term showed that they had also met the learning goals.  Fun doesn’t have to come at the expense of intellectual achievement.  There is of course a line—we aren’t there to entertain or be their friends, but thinking about how to co-create a professional but relaxed learning environment is something I’ll now spend more time thinking about.

I think our quest for ‘excellence’ (driven partly by our own personalities but also the stresses of pre-tenure life) can sometimes translate into work and teaching environments that are not healthy for us or perhaps our students.  With mental health problems on the rise for both our students and for academic staff, taking a bit more time to reflect on the overall learning environment and how to lower the stress levels for all involved seems a sound investment.  Maybe interpretive dance wont work for everyone, but still….

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