Dear First-Time Teachers . . .

I’m nearing the end of my first semester as a full-time instructor. It shouldn’t be earth-shattering; after all, I was an adjunct for ten years before this. Teaching at three different schools, teaching between 10 and 14 classes a semester (that translates into 30 – 42 hours, in education-speak). This should have been nothing to me, really. It should have been easy. 

But it hasn’t been easy. It’s been a HUGE transition. A transition that’s not done yet. It’s not even really a rite of passage, because at least that ends at some point. This doesn’t. Every week, there’s something new to learn, something else I didn’t know I was supposed to be doing. So let me share some thoughts:

1.) If you don’t say something, no one will ever know. I know it sounds so simple, but communication is so difficult. You feel like you SHOULD know, and you’re afraid that if you ask a question, you’ll be seen as incompetent or stupid, or that someone will say, “Yeah, that was in an email last week. Duh.” We tell our students all the time that there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but we don’t believe it ourselves, do we? The other day, another new teacher and I both admitted that it feels like there’s things we aren’t doing because we don’t know we’re supposed to be doing them. Sometimes it’s hard to put the questions into words. Sometimes (again), you’ll feel like you’re stupid if you ask. You need to ask anyway.

2.) Your office will NOT feel like home for a LONG, LONG TIME. No matter how many knick-knacks and photos you put up, no matter how many books you put on the ugly metal shelves,  no matter how many scatter rugs you put down – it just won’t feel right. And more to the point . . .

3.) You probably won’t feel you belong there. You might stare at yourself in the mirror every morning and think, this is the day they find out they made a mistake and they’ve hired the wrong person, and I’m a fraud. There’s actually a term for this:  it’s called Impostor Syndrome. I have it. No matter how much evidence there may be to the contrary – see, I said may be, not is – I feel like I have no business being there, and that if I make one wrong move, they’ll discover the horrible truth – I’m a fraud, a charlatan, a con artist (except, you know, I can’t pull off really elaborate, high-dollar heists).

4.) To quote Elle in Legally Blond:  First impressions are not always correct. I had a student who, when I first met him, seemed to have zero respect for me. He was rude, always questioning, insulting to me and the other students, and I woke up every day praying for an email from the school saying he’d dropped the course. But as I got to know him, I realized that he’s incredibly bright and hard-working; his mind works in a very specific fashion (he’s an engineering student); and what seemed like disrespect is simply how he deals with others. In truth, he ended up being one of my favorite students.

5.) Nothing will be perfect the first time out. I’m a perfectionist, and this one is SO HARD FOR ME. I want it all perfect, at once. But here’s the thing:  you’re probably going to be teaching at least one course (maybe three, like me) that you’ve never taught before. Never even had coursework in before. What do you do? You prep the best you can. Every semester is another chance to tweak things, to change what you didn’t like, to add something new, to change it up. Because . . .

6.) That first semester is all about survival. I had a meeting with my VP of Academic Affairs this week, and he asked if I had ever thought about doing xyz in the classroom. I think I took a smidgen too long to answer, because he said, “A perfectly acceptable answer is, ‘No, right now I’m just trying to survive!'” 🙂 It is, in fact, the only answer you can give sometimes, and everyone will understand, because everyone has been there. That’s why no one will really mind if you ask questions. That’s why no one will mind if your courses aren’t perfect that first time out. They know you’re doing your best.

7.) Your colleagues are your lifeline. Maybe you’ve been teaching for a long time already. Or like me, you were hired at the school where you already work. Either way – the learning curve is steep, my friend. I know there will be days when you want to shut your door and have a good cry at your desk. It’s okay. Do it. But don’t do it to the exclusion of have good conversations with your colleagues. I, for one, would not have dared pitch an entirely new degree program to my VP of Academic Affairs last week had my colleagues not pushed me forward. They’ve been there. Done that. And they (probably) want you to succeed.

8.) Keep your nose clean, kid. There are things that just have to be done, and you have to do them. Get grades and attendance in on time. Attend in-service. Don’t skip out on office hours. Answer your students’ emails. GRADE THINGS. Within a reasonable time frame. Attend required training sessions. You don’t have tenure. You don’t get a break. Not yet, anyway. And one more thing:  don’t make more work for yourself than you can handle. You may think that volunteering for this and that will endear you to your school, but – no. You will kill yourself. Just don’t do it. Remember:  survival.

9.) Be kind. Yes, there are deadlines, and yes, the college will back your play if you adhere to them and don’t allow late work. Yes, the student who comes to you during finals week (and you think, wait, are you in my class?) and says “Yeah, I haven’t been here and I haven’t done any of the work but I need to get caught up” is going to be up a creek without a paddle. But the one who has an emergency and can’t get to a final, or turn in a paper on time, needs kindness.

10.) Accept it:  not everything will get done. And I don’t mean at work. I mean at home. I had to choose priorities. Bottle-feeding my surprise kittens was a priority. Continuing to run my vintage shop was a priority. After that . . . let’s just say the house is a pigsty and I haven’t written on my novels in a month. And reading? I wish. My daily walks are just a dream. What will you have to give up? Sleep? Time with your family? Just do me a favor: don’t give up too much. Don’t give up the things that make you, you.

No, the transition is not done yet. Maybe it won’t ever be done, I don’t know. Too early to say. I’m just now beginning to take ownership of my position, to think of myself (sometimes) as ‘not an adjunct.’ And I’m hoping next semester goes easier for me. Hopefully, some of these things will make your first time out easier for you.


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