At the start of the semester I received a last-minute inquiry regarding my interest in interviewing for a part-time, short-term position at the Pacific School of Religion, one of the member schools at the Graduate Theological Union. The course attracted more enrollees than expected, creating an opening for a teaching assistant. Like a good doctoral student I leapt at the chance to accrue the XP.
In review, here are three valuable lessons I learned the first time I got paid to teach:
1. Keep your emails on the shorter side.
I’ve written most of my emails from the perspective of a student. Experiencing the exchange as an instructor has dramatically altered the way in which I try to participate.
In addition to preparing lectures, grading assignments, leading classes, and meeting with students, a teacher with a full load can receive hundreds of daily emails. Now I better understand that my own email—carefully-crafted though it may be, with a detailed explanation of my research project or attendance issues—is one voice among very many.
Now, to make a positive impression with my emails, I try to be quick and clear.
I also make an effort also to be polite, because [quick + clear] – polite = rude, which is not typically how I mean to communicate with my instructors or students.
Of course there are times when it’s better to write paragraphs instead of sentences. But it doesn’t hurt to check first: “I’ve got X number of issues I’d like to discuss about A, B, and C. Is email best or should we schedule a meeting?” This approach has proven tactically sound.
Tip: “Please,” “thank you,” and honorifics like “Dr.,” “Rev.,” or “Fr.” are a good way to be brief and respectful at the same time.
2. Ask for help like a professional.
This was the second-most painful lesson of the semester, which started out pretty good. I showed up on time. I wore a suit. For my first fifteen-minute lecture I even prepared a decent handout.
For a few brief, glorious weeks, I managed to juggle my classes, my toddler, and my new part-time job.
Things went sideways when accidentally I swallowed broken glass. Thankfully, with the help and patience of my professors, I managed to salvage a good portion of the semester.
Like the broken glass, the worst wound by far to my ego was self-inflicted: a lecture I gave—or tried to give—on Reinhold Neihbur.
The talk itself was awkward, rambling, haphazard. It lasted about half as long as it was supposed to, and twice as long as it should have. I was covered in flop sweat. The students were visibly rattled.
During class discussion, I discovered that I had included Richard Neihbur—the wrong Neihbur!—in the assigned readings.
Later the professor and I had a frank but gracious debrief. Dr. Walker helped me to put the overall catastrophe in perspective. She assured me it wasn’t quite as bad as I made it sound in retrospect (“It wasn’t a catastrophic failure,” I think she said).
Overall, the ordeal taught me more than I expected to learn about myself as a future teacher and as a person, and in that respect it wasn’t a wasted experience.
All this to say: there was a moment in time—I recall it quite clearly—when I arrived before that particular session to find Dr. Walker prepping for class. Instead of admitting my lack of preparedness I tried to paper over my deficiencies.
If I had looked her in the eye and said, “I’m sorry—I can’t produce what I said I could produce,” she could have taken up the slack without missing a beat (she’s good like that). Instead, I couldn’t admit I wasn’t ready, and the outcome was an unhappy memory.
3. Good teaching is harder than it looks.
I’ve had opportunities to observe good teachers closely, and not just as a student or as a teaching assistant. When I was very young my dad was student-teaching. Today he’s a tenured professor. I’ve had the chance to closely observe the kind of sacrifices of time, money, and energy required for the art of good teaching.
But observing is different than doing, and the transformation from student to scholar and teacher requires (ugh) discipline—the type of discipline you muster for love and not for money.
In this regard, it’s a relief to be studying and teaching in an environment like the Graduate Theological Union, where there are passionate educators and professionals who delight in constructively shaping future ministers, leaders, and scholars.
That is to say, here there is an abundance of constructive pedagogical models, and a network of people who want to help you succeed and thrive. It’s a good place to grow and branch out.