Confessions: Things I do Wrong in the Classroom

This is the part of my blog where I give a knowing nod to my students, and confess my sins. Below are a list of things I still do wrong as a teacher and why, despite being aware that these things are issues, I just can’t seem to stop. If anyone out there – especially university students who have stumbled onto this blog – has any advice, I’d love to hear it. So, without further ado, here’s what I do wrong:

1. I talk too fast

Ask my students about my greatest flaw as a teacher and they will tell you that I talk too fast. I have tried all sorts of things to slow myself down. I draw lines in my lecture notes to remind myself to take breaks. I try to remember to take long breaths between sentences. I periodically ask if people have any questions. Hell, I even ask for 3 student volunteers on the first day who will agree to come regularly and hold up their pens sideways  if I start going too fast (if you’re wondering why sideways, it’s because plenty of students put their hands up to ask questions while holding a pen normally, so I want to be able to differentiate). Sadly, the pen trick never seems to work because said students are typing too furiously to be able to take the time to raise their hands.

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[Finding the right pace continues to be a problem for me]

I just can’t quite seem to slow down for two reasons: one is legitimate, the other one not so much. Let’s start with the bullshit reason. Basically, this boils down to the fact that I’m a fast talker, especially when I get excited. And in the classroom, where I have a tendency to feed off the energy of my students, I can get hilariously “into” talking about history. And so… I go a mile a minute with what seems like little regard for the plight of my students (really guys, I am trying to slow down – I’m just failing). But I do have a legitimate reason too, and that has to do with pace. I am painfully aware that there is a fine line between too fast and too slow, and so I’m still practicing my tightrope walking routine. Go too fast and you end up with a classroom full of grumpy students with sore wrists and cramped fingers. Go too slow, however, and you end up with scads of students who are either bored to tears or, in some cases, who actually fall asleep. At least they have good notes?

2. I seem to have favourites, even if I don’t really

This has come up in my teacher reviews on several occasions because once I learn the names of my students, I use them – and let’s face it, it’s easier to learn the names of students who you’ve taught before or who talk a lot. I do this because despite the fact that there are 150 faces staring back at me from a sea of chairs in some dark, bland, cement lecture hall, I want to make the class a more personal experience for all of us.  Unfortunately, it gives the impression that I like these people more.

For the record, I don’t have favourites. And while some students can – and do – annoy me, I would still march up to the gates of hell to defend their best interests and/or to help them learn (yeah, ok, I have a little bit of a mama bear thing going on when it comes to my students). I am fully committed to helping anyone and everyone, even if it’s with something that’s only tangentially related to my course. I want to teach people how to think critically, because I want them to love learning and to possess an inquisitive mind for the rest of their lives. And I want them to know that I am willing to help them do this. Part of my shtick, then, is letting students know that I care about them as people and that they’re more than the sum of their grades in my marking spreadsheet. I’m willing to meet with them outside of class, to have productive email exchanges, or to teach them how to search databases. But I still haven’t mastered the art of making sure that people know I would do this for anyone, and not just the students in the front row.

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[There is no doubt in my mind that my students sometimes feel this way]

3. Sometimes I ask too much of my students

Again, if you approach my students, they will likely tell you that the first time they looked at the syllabus or read their assignment sheets, they just about had a heart attack. I regularly ask first and second year students to think about hard problems – to try to understand the grand narrative, and to tear it apart all at once. I introduce them to seventeenth-century handwriting, or early modern pamphlets printed in a strange font and complete with the dreaded “long s” that they always take for an “f.” I even present the concept of historiography, and try to force them into a more genuine acceptance of the fact that history needs to balance the “real lived experience” with the postmodern realization that there is no such thing as “truth.” And yes, I make them read and write. A lot. And right from the start.

But once again, I can’t quite seem to stop doing this. I try to soften the blow by reminding them that I don’t expect them to do it right, I just expect them to try it. This way, when they get into those senior courses, they’ll have had the practice, and they’ll do it right when it counts. I assure them that I won’t mark their papers as if they were graduate students – or even 4th years – and I tell them that I know that reading scholarly writing can be both hard and boring, so they should just do their best and come to seminar willing to talk it out. Deep down, however, I know this doesn’t remove the anxiety and that there must be a better way to build towards the skills I want to teach. Part of the problem is that all of these things are second nature to me. I read, write, and analyze with almost as much ease as I walk, talk or even breath, so I don’t know how to teach these skills from the bottom up. I was also never taught to do these things myself, and was largely “thrown in the deep end and told to swim,” so I don’t have great models. They must be out there, I just haven’t found them yet.

4. I have a hard time dealing with silence

The fact that I write a weekly blog probably gave this away. I am comfortable talking, even in public forums. The corollary of this is that I am not so comfortable in those scenarios when everything goes quiet at the same time. It always feels like a vacuum to me, and nature abhors a void. Yeah… I know… not good. This leads to all sorts of problems, ranging from my inability pause and let students catch up with me in lectures, to my occasional tendency to provide insufficient time for them to just sit and think during seminars.

I don’t have a good reason for this. It’s just the way I am. It’s a flaw, and it’s something that I have struggled with all my life. I get better at it every year, and I’m increasingly conscious of what I take from others by constantly filling what could otherwise be a productive space, but I’d be lying if I said I had it under control. I need to shut up and listen, and this is one of those instances where I can learn more from my students than they can learn from me. I look forward to the challenge, but I doubt I’ll figure it out any time soon.

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