Teaching: Classrooms of Expectation

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I really like public speaking. I love presenting at conferences, talking in front of a group of my peers. Oh, I get nervous of course, but I find it thrilling to discuss and perform creative theoretical ideas with supportive people. 

Teaching, though, is a whole different ball game. It scares me witless. There are two main reasons for this.

1. Expectations and wisdom

When I'm presenting at conferences, the ideas are subtly different to those of the classroom, and I am able and encouraged, often, to embark on flights of intellectual fancy. It doesn't work that way with teaching. There can be theory, of course, but the knowledge outcomes for the students must be concrete. My worry always is that I'll get something wrong, teach them something incorrect, or be unable to explain something properly. I'll either get called out on this or feel bad about it when I realise. Either way, the outcome won't be pleasant. 

To my knowledge, I've never made any such mistake. But the horror that I might do so is always there.

2. The audience relationship

I'm no natural commander. I'm better than I was when I began my PhD, but I'm still unable to walk into a room and immediately receive attention and respect. This is partly due to my physical stature, and partly, I think, an issue of confidence in the way I carry myself. I'm short, skinny and bespectacled, with hair that does exactly what it wants, and the innocent face of a twelve year old. As a consequence, I have to work especially hard to make anything like an authoritative impression. And that immediate control of a situation and attention is crucial for a teacher. 

My teaching experiences were sometimes difficult specifically because of the nature of my audience. I was twenty eight when I finished my PhD, and because the students I taught were all postgraduate, I was the same age or younger than most of them, and many of them had a great deal more experience of real life than I actually did. This didn't exactly make me seem like a legitimate authority figure, I'm sure.

So, what to do?

It was, and is, really important to me that I get over these hurdles. Teaching is such a huge part of an academic career. Gaining teaching experience during your PhD is really valuable, as it allows you to develop, professionally and personally, in a safe environment. We were quite limited in what we could do in my doctoral cohort, because our department was entirely postgraduate. Most PhD candidates get far more opportunity to teach than we did - so if you have the chances, take them. From a purely mercenary point of view, it does no harm to your CV.

Despite the lack, I gained teaching experience in several different ways. Perhaps one of the easiest things to do is assist with field trips led by an experienced tutor. In that way, you get to observe teaching in a different context, and, if you are lucky, are able to become party to some of the organisation and planning. Ask your supervisor if they plan to do field trips , and if it would be possible for you to be involved.

It may also be possible for you to teach established classes and courses. Usually, you'll just have to learn the information and structure of the class, so it doesn't require too much planning on your part. Once again, however, you get to see more directly the effort and work that goes into teaching. I've had some of my best teaching experiences this way: I assisted with Care of Collections practical sessions, which was a huge amount of fun. I got to help people in a very tangible way, explain very concrete things to them, and let the science monkey that hides inside this museologist-historian out to play.

Perhaps the most terrifying form of teaching, however, is going it alone. Developing your own classes and workshops, and maybe a series or sessions, is a lot of work. You have to think about different learning styles and needs, tangible learning outcomes, teaching methods, media and materials, environmental and time management, and evaluation - both that given by the students and your own personal self assessment. It's not easy. But it is worthwhile. I led a field trip to Manchester Museum - it was kind of at the last minute, due to the illness of the original tutor. But I worked up to it, developed a plan on the bus on the way up there, and delivered. It was only a small group of special option students, but still, they were intelligent and asked smart questions. So it was scary. But I met one of those students at a recent conference: and she still remembers the day, and talks to me. She now works in museums, and is a member of the SSN I work for, and I have to admit that I take some, perhaps unwarranted, pride in seeing her career blossom.

As a PhD candidate, you can be a really special kind of tutor. Both student and scholar, you may find yourself as someone under and postgraduate learners can come to for advice, and to ask questions, which they are not comfortable taking to a more senior figure. You have authority, but it is authority of a different, less removed kind. Closer to their experiences than a lecturer is, you are able to offer advice, friendliness, and a sympathetic ear. Mixed with command, these can be the qualities of a good teacher too.

PhD Section

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