14 November 2008

Teaching and learning

A few years ago, I taught for one semester in another course, in an area that was new to me, so it was always a scramble to stay ahead of the class. I took the gig to fill in for someone who was going on long service leave, and she very helpfully sat me down ahead of time and went through how she taught the class. I tried to mimic what she did, and it was a struggle. I was hating the class, and they were hating me. About a third of the way through the semester, I realised this really wasn't working for any of us and sat down to think about why. 

I love teaching in Professional Writing and Editing, so I wondered at first whether it was the fact that I wasn't as familiar with nor as passionate about the subject matter. No, I decided, it wasn't that. I was definitely interested in the subject matter, and was working alongside another teacher, who was driving the course, and she was most helpful and prepared stuff for me, which I then went away and researched so I knew what we were talking about. 

Okay, if it wasn't the subject matter, perhaps it was the students. They were definitely different from the PWE students, being much rowdier, more multicultural, less literate and -- hmm, dare I say "serious"? But they were a vibrant lot -- I didn't really think that was it either. (And, in fact, later I learnt it definitely wasn't that.)

Then it hit me. I was trying to be this other teacher who was on long service leave. I was teaching the course her way, not approaching it the way I approached "my" classes. Sounds silly but that was a momentous discovery to make and a real turning point. That week I threw out my class plans and started again from scratch, and the next week, the students didn't know what had hit them. The first thing I abandoned was the thing they (and I) hated most, so they were very receptive to the change.

Within weeks I was loving the course and loving them, and they were obviously enjoying it a lot more. I found they were a lot more serious about their studies than I had thought -- once they started getting more out of it, they settled in and knuckled down. Or perhaps it was just that I had won their respect. I don't know. I do know the course evaluations were very positive -- something I don't think they would have been if I'd continued on the way I had been going.

It's so much easier, though, teaching something you love. And so it is for me with my writing and editing subjects, and though I sometimes get burned out from workshopping, and find I'll do almost anything to avoid doing it outside work, I love the fact that teaching enriches my own writing, through my research, through my interactions with students and hearing them discuss other people's work. Sometimes I think that to teach writing is to be truly blessed. (But, of course, that's not how I feel right in the middle of those big assessment weeks when my eyes are bugging out,  and I'd do anything to get to my own writing . . .)

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