Observations on Teaching for Four Weeks

I just finished a program where I taught two classes of high school seniors, two classes a day for four weeks, as part of my grad program.

This experience was a lot of fun and it was rewarding, but it was really surprising, and even if only in small ways prompted me to update my beliefs about the experience of being a professor. Here are the three biggest surprises I encountered.

1: The Absent-Minded Professor Thing is Real

I used to be confused and even a little bit offended when at my meetings with my advisor every week, he wouldn’t be able to remember anything about my projects, our recent steps, or what we talked about last week.

Now I get it. Even after just one week of classes, my short-term and long-term memory were both entirely shot. I would tell students things like, “send that to me in an email, otherwise I’ll forget” because I would. Now that the program is over, things are slowly getting better, but I’m still recovering.

I can’t really tell why this happened, but there are two obvious theories. The first is just that two classes at the same time is too many names and faces (plus other personal details) at once and so much information just overwhelmed me. The other is that there’s something unusual about teaching in particular. I noticed that I was doing a lot more task-switching than normal. Most jobs and most of my research experience involves working on projects for long blocks of time, multiple hours or sometimes multiple days with few distractions aside basics like eating and sleeping and commuting. But teaching involves changing your focus over and over.

I’ve led recitation sections as a teaching assistant, but for some reason this was so much worse. That makes me think that it’s more likely to be the task-switching. As a recitation leader, you have to remember a lot of names and faces too. But once you’re outside of class you can mostly go back to work as normal, there’s not so much task-switching.

This project was in a high school but my students were all seniors, so I think this is what it would be like to teach college too. Most of them were already 18 so you can barely tell the difference. I was helping them with projects so I think it’s a bit like being a PhD advisor too. So it could also be the load of keeping track of lots of research projects, more than just keeping track of lots of people.

2: Teaching Makes You Dehydrated

For this program I taught only two days a week, just two classes, on Monday and Wednesday afternoon. But even with only two classes per day and two days per week, I became seriously and uncomfortably dehydrated.

This had all kinds of weird knock-on effects with my digestion and my ability to concentrate. It was really very unpleasant.

Part of this is that you have to be talking and meeting all the time. But mostly I got dehydrated because of the logistics. If you drink enough water, then halfway through the class you have to go to the bathroom and you’re either super uncomfortable and distracted all session or you have to awkwardly walk out in the middle of class.

Even if it doesn’t hit right away, a 10-minute break between classes isn’t enough time to go to the bathroom, especially since some students show up early from the next class and others stay late. So you’re trapped.

I had some success on days when I showed videos and could sneak out the back while they were watching. But overall this was bad for my teaching and my quality of life.

3: Teaching is a Grueling Job Even Under the Best Circumstances

I didn’t really like high school. Classes were too easy and too boring, and even though no one was asking very much of me, I felt like I was being taken advantage of.

Implicitly I assumed that the teachers were the ones taking advantage of me, so even though they didn’t seem all that happy, I assumed they were doing better than I was.

But in this program I still felt like I was being taken advantage of. But that didn’t make any sense. I was teaching whatever I wanted (as long as it was roughly about the topic) and however I wanted. They didn’t tell me what books to use or even ask to look at my syllabus. I made it as hard or as easy as I wanted. It was still really grueling, for me. Rewarding, yes, but grueling, kind of a pain.

This was the biggest surprise. I thought that school was mostly bad because teachers made it bad (skill issue?). But now I think there must be something inherent to school, or one of the assumptions we make about it (1hr 20min classes? class sizes?) that makes it a kind of miserable experience for all involved.

Looking back at this list, the final surprise is that these are all much more negative than I realized. Weirdly though this makes me more interested in teaching in the future. Maybe I can come up with new ways of doing things that won’t make me so burnt out and distracted next time. I’d welcome any comments or suggestions. :)