Friday, September 23, 2011

Falling In

So apparently it's already the first day of autumn. Not quite sure how it got here so fast, since I'm pretty sure the first day of summer was about two seconds ago, but oh well.

Autumn is my favorite season. For me, the year doesn't begin in January, it starts in late August or September. Autumn is the season of fresh school clothes, sharp pencils, unsullied notebooks and new books and new ideas to be encountered. If I was a poet, I'd even wax poetic about the falling leaves as confetti heralding new beginnings. Luckily for you, I'm not a poet.

Autumn is also the season of new year's resolutions. I won't leave my work to the last minute. I will get up in time to eat a proper breakfast before I rush out the door. I will do all the reading. I won't pull an all-nighter to finish my paper. (... most of my vices deal with procrastination, can you tell?)

My new year's resolutions this year are also about teaching. Now that I've been a TA for two years (going on three), and teaching with the same professors several times, I want to make sure that I don't allow my teaching to grow stale. The first quarter I taught I was a little bit petrified (I'm teaching modern European history? I'm a *medievalist*!), and I fell into a rut that my students soon came to recognize, which, I'm sure, eventually detracted from what they could've learned from my discussion sections. While it's valuable to have a routine (college students are like toddlers in that respect), it's also important to switch things up a bit to keep them on their toes and so that they don't get into the habit of skipping the reading because they never have in-class quizzes, or because the TA always lets them get by without participating or whatever.

School started on Wednesday, but today was my first day of actual teaching for the quarter. My classes are awesomely small this time around (11 in the first section, 15 in the second), but it's always a bit of an adjustment getting back into the hang of teaching after a summer off. The second section went much better than the first, partly (I suspect) because it's at 10:30 instead of 9:30 (my students are never morning people), but also because I was warmed up and ready to be a teacher again by that point.

I've become more interested in pedagogy lately, and I think there may also be a pedagogical reason that the second class went better than the first. (Incidentally, pedagogy is just a fancy word for the study of teaching practices). Anyway, part of pedagogy is studying the effect body language has on a group of people, and the way it changes the dynamics of the class for the teacher to stand behind her podium for the whole class, or to stand back near the chalkboard with her arms crossed, to move around the classroom, to use her hands while she talks or not... all of those things change the students' perception of the teacher (although, naturally, two students perception of and reaction to the same actions can be totally different).

Anyway, I started my first class sitting down in a student desk facing the class while I had them introduce themselves and explained the course objectives and did the general opening day minutia.

It showed.

From the start, that class lagged. It's not that the students lacked enthusiasm, nor was it just that it was 9:30 on a rainy Friday morning. The energy was just not there.

For the second class, I stood while we made introductions and I talked about the class. There is a table at the front of my classroom that has a podium that sits on it, and I put my class list on it and leaned on it while my students were telling me about themselves and there was palpably more energy in the classroom throughout the period. I tend to walk around the front of my classroom a lot, and I like to write on the board and make lists while the class brainstorms ideas, so standing to start the class made for a smooth transition once we started to review yesterday's lecture and get them set up for next week's topics.

It was a good reminder that my actions, not just my words, have a direct impact on my students' experience in the class. Whereas the first section was awkward and boring, the second flowed smoothly and my students were much more willing to participate and interact with me and with one another. While some of that can probably be ascribed to the personalities of the people in the class and the later time, I think that getting off my lazy butt and "starting off on the right foot" (pardon the lame pun) had a lot to do with it. So add to my list of new year's resolutions an awareness of my ability as a teacher to make or break a class for my students, and a plan to always make my classes interesting, informative and enjoyable.

Happy New Year!

Gorgeous image found here

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