Sunday, June 17, 2012

Teaching Loads

I've been pretty silent lately. Creeping around when I can, but I've actually been whole days away from the internet. The end of term was pretty rough and full of enormous stacks of essays as I sailed around multiple universities. Then I had a quick research trip abroad, a family reunion, and a two-day conference before settling into a summer teaching gig.

Oh summer gigs. You know the type of course I mean: 35 students, 5 hours every single bleeding day, supposedly the equivalent of a whole year smashed into the summer months. I suppose the technical number of minutes in class is equal, but it is not the same. It's brutal. People's brains burn out by the third hour. Assigning 3 hours of homework does not allow for careful thought or analysis. For the teacher, it's an exercise in marathon-levels of resistance training.

It makes me think of my first year teaching: working 12-hour days and scrambling constantly to adjust to the abilities of each class while also balancing the necessary alterations of a new institution. It's so much tough work and forced creativity. It just goes and goes and goes, never ending at all.

I think to myself: some people come directly out of undergrad and begin teaching like this in our schools. I realize, had I been given this summer class as a twinkling 24-year-old, I would have failed myself and my students. No one would have won.

Yet this is precisely what the majority of new teachers much do, from kindergarten to college. They are thrown into full swing, 0 to 60 in a split second. The first full time job is often the first job itself. Oh, sure, adjuncting a class while writing the dissertation... or being a TA... or even "student teaching." But these teaching games are like watching from the sidelines compared to experiencing the first year of a 3/3/1 load or a full-time high school gig. The 60-hour workweeks collide with your need to tighten a manuscript or finish your research or schmooze with new colleagues and establish a network. Part of you slowly dies and you live for those first 9 months in a state of continual hyper-awareness, constantly imagining new teaching approaches, activities, assessments, discussion questions, readings, essays.

Why do we do this? I mean, why is this the system of apprenticeship?

I imagine a situation where all teachers begin with one class per semester. You have graduated with a PhD, you are given a lectureship at a school, you polish your dissertation into a book manuscript while teaching, and then you move on to a fuller load. For high school, you start with  a similar 1/1 load with another 1/1 student teaching appointment. You observe, you grade, you practice, you fail, but all at a nice low load so you can practice and get better before you have 4 classes' worth of students' lives in your hands.

How long does it take to become a good teacher? Five years? Ten? For many, the answer is never... they continue only because they have friends in the right places, or because the institution doesn't have a clear method of observing teaching ability, or there is some very lenient union and no one else to replace them should they be let go. Or an institution privileges research over teaching. Which is fine, because research is tremendously important, but I personally find teaching to be tremendously important as well. The presentation of new information assists our development as relevant scholars.

Perhaps this musing will be met with comments about how I am living in a dream world. We cannot find jobs for half our PhDs, let alone adopt a new easing-in teaching system of a 1/1 first year. Yes, this is true. I am living in a fantasy world. But this is also a blog where we imagine talking back to our asshole students, or screaming at administrators, or seducing that one foxy colleague, or drinking ourselves through a committee meeting. So surely I can dream about a better apprenticing program for our teaching, can't I?

Probably, but only if I realize it's just a dream.

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