What I learned my first semester of graduate school, as a teacher.

This post is a bit delayed, as I’ve already begun and completed two weeks of my second semester of graduate school. However, I feel that it’s important to write about my experiences of teaching my first semester of graduate school, not just so others can read about it but mostly for myself, to reflect back on those first 4 months.

I have taught before. As many of you know, I taught English in France from October 2015 to April 2016. Though I was only an assistant, I did write lesson plans for some of my classes and actually taught them. However, what I taught them was completely up to me. I taught them mostly about culture while incorporating new vocabulary and some grammar points. Basically, I got to teach my students about all of the fun stuff about learning a language, as I only taught each class once a week or once every two weeks. It made teaching extremely fun and exciting. I loved seeing my students ask me questions about my native language and culture. I loved seeing their interest and enthusiasm. This is how I grew to enjoy and to love teaching.

Unfortunately, being the teacher who lesson plans and teaches every single class by myself, I don’t only get to focus on the fun culture stuff. I have to talk about the sometimes boring and sometimes confusing grammar stuff too. My perspective on teaching has shifted a bit, and here’s why.

Teaching can be really exhausting. It can be confusing and frustrating. You try your best to actively engage the students and create a fun, enthusiastic atmosphere, but sometimes you just get plain blank stares instead. These blank stares communicate to you one of two things: they are utterly confused or utterly bored/annoyed. This in turn makes you constantly question yourself. Are they understanding what I’m teaching? Do they feel like I’m teaching it well? Is there a better way to be doing this? Am I even making a difference or an impact? Am I helping them to care at all, not just about this class but also about learning about a different language and culture? Are they ever going to leave this class feeling like they accomplished something? Am I even succeeding? I constantly question myself, constantly feeling like I could always be doing better.

But that’s the point. Though these feelings of doubt and uncertainty are extremely uncomfortable and make me feel like a failure, when I do succeed it is that much more rewarding.

For example, I never truly felt like I was getting my students excited about learning about France and French culture, something that I hold very dear to my heart, as I consider it my second home. However, towards the end of the semester, I was using pictures of my time in France to teach a grammar point. Though my students tended to not focus too much on the grammar point, they started asking me in English about my time in France and the culture there. At first, I was annoyed that they weren’t even trying to ask in French, as by this point we were well into the semester and I knew that they had the vocabulary to at least form a partial sentence. However, instead of being annoyed, I just stopped and embraced the moment. So, I started answering their questions in English. I felt like I had gotten through to my students in this moment. They were getting excited about learning French and about the culture. They were so excited that I had to stop the questions so that we didn’t fall completely behind, and afterwards, they seemed much more enthusiastic and willing to work on grammar, despite the fact that they didn’t like it.

I have to remind myself though that not every moment is going to be like this one. There will be moments where the students are completely bored and where I have to help them trudge through boring grammar points.

However, it also means that I’m constantly learning how to become a better teacher, using those questions mentioned earlier to push myself to do things differently but in a better way so that I can continue to engage my students.

Teaching is a lesson in creativity. Lesson planning can be frustrating. As I mentioned, I want to actively engage my students, which means that I’m constantly searching for fun activities in order to teach and to practice that which I teach them. I am not always successful. I would consider myself a creative person, but only in very few aspects of my life, such as when I write on this blog. I would not consider myself an overall creative teacher, which is why lesson planning tends to frustrate me. There have been many times in which it would take me hours to plan one lesson because I had absolutely no ideas on how to present a specific set of vocabulary or grammar. It made me want to pull my hair out.

However, these moments have forced me to become more creative. They have forced me to think outside the box and to think outside of how I would personally like to learn a language. Where I might enjoy pictures and PowerPoints, not all students learn the exact same way. It forces me to start thinking like my students. It forces me to research different ideas and then make them my own. It forces me to constantly change the way that I approach language and culture.

Though I wouldn’t consider myself to be the most creative teacher, I’m definitely improving. Since I’m teaching the same level this semester as the last semester, I find myself re-writing my old lesson plans because I have new and better ideas on how to approach the material. This makes me realize that I am improving.

Teaching is a lesson in time-management. Being a full time student while teaching part-time means that every minute of every day is important and should be taken advantage of. I was never always the best at managing my time. Though I still struggle, teaching and being a student at the same time have taught me that I can’t dick around at any moment. I have to take advantage of every moment to get work done.

Because of this, my tendencies to procrastinate, though have not completely diminished, have definitely started to dwindle. It’s a lesson in self-discipline, one that is definitely constantly a pain but one that hurts so good. (Yes, I really did just say that).

My increase in self-discipline has produced better working and study habits, which in-turn is helping me to not feel overwhelmed (Though I’m not always successful). Though I’m still constantly working on it, I am not the same person that I was when I was an undergraduate student.

Teaching is a lesson in patience. I have never really been the patient type. You can ask my mother. I hate repeating myself, and I hate when people don’t understand me the first time. I always want to keep moving forward, and I hate repeating steps. This does not make for a good relationship with teaching. So, in teaching, even in teaching university students, my patience level started to greatly increase. I cannot yell at my students when I’m feeling impatient, because they are just trying to understand. It also reminded me that everyone learns at a different pace. I’ve always been a quick language learner, so I often forget that not everyone is.

Having to be patient has also taught me how to be creative in explaining certain aspects of the language, as my students don’t always understand it in the first place. Having to explain a grammar point three different times in three different ways was definitely quite the challenge when I first started teaching.

However, it has made me a more patient person and a better teacher.

Lastly, teaching reminds me of what is to be a new language learner. This is my eleventh year learning French, and yes I’m always learning the language. However, the fact that I can read, write, understand, and speak French means that despite the fact that I’m always improving it, I don’t necessarily feel like a new language learner. I don’t feel completely lost and unsure of myself most of the time. These are the feelings that I’ve forgotten about. I had forgotten that coming into a classroom where the teacher is speaking a language that you don’t understand is extremely terrifying. It also makes you feel like you are already failing from the start and that you will never get it.

It brings me back to when I studied abroad. Having all native-French speaking professors in my program meant that I only understood about a quarter to half of what they were saying. (Because at that point my understanding and speaking of the language were definitely not the best). It was terrifying. I always felt like I was going to mess up and answer a question wrongly. I’m sure this is exactly how my students feel.

So, it’s made me more aware of their situation, seeing them struggle and seeing them have baby victories. It reminds me of the student I once used to be.

In this way, I can share my experiences with them and encourage them, showing them that I was right where they are when I first started learning the language and that they will someday get there if they just keep working at it.

 

Teaching can be a real struggle sometimes. Sometimes, I constantly question myself and wonder if I’m even cut out for the job. But then I see the little victories, and it’s all worth it, despite the massive struggles on the occasion.

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