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.


Making students understand September 11 . . .

On Tuesday morning, I was cleaning stalls and thinking . . . and for some reason, found my thoughts drifting to a very unsettling realization.

My students, for the most part, no longer know what it was like on September 11, 2001.

My eighteen-year olds were only four that day. My nineteen-year olds, just five. How young is too young to comprehend something of that magnitude? To fully comprehend what it was like to know that not only was our nation about to go to war against an unknown enemy, but that thousands of innocent people had died in that opening gauntlet? To watch the reactions from around the world, see the children in Pakistan cheering and stomping on our flag, utterly bewildered that they could take such pleasure from our grief?

To realize that we knew nothing?

I was 25, and I was too young.

I’ve only been teaching since 2008. But I’ve always been able to use September 11 as a touchstone, a way to reach my students. When we talk about Pearl Harbor especially, I talk about the attack itself, the way the Japanese surprised us on a clear, sunny Sunday morning, and the reaction of people across the nation. Then I can say, “This was their September 11.”

I used to see the realization dawning in their eyes, the slow nods of their heads, the solemn, reverent way they now looked at the photos of the listing, smoke-filled USS Arizona on the screen before them. No longer a random date in history; it now had meaning, because they knew, exactly, what America felt that day as the news began to spread that we had lost the majority of the Pacific Fleet, and thousands of American lives, in just half an hour.

I don’t see that anymore. Not really. I see what they think I want to see:  heads nodding, thoughtfully, as if to say, “Yes, I’ll nod, because it’s what she wants and because I really should know what this means, but . . . I don’t.”

And I don’t know how to teach them that.

I don’t even think I can.

As I was thinking over this on Tuesday morning — a bright, clear, sunny day, again — I heard a fighter jet flying overhead, and rushed out of the barn. By that time, it was already gone, no doubt on its way to McConnell AFB an hour away. I went back inside the barn. Five minutes later, I heard another booming overhead.

It took me back to that week like nothing else.

I remember what it was like to look up into the skies and see emptiness. Nothing. I live in Kansas. I live between two major airports and two major Air Force bases. Planes are a part of life. To go on my walks in the country, look up into that clear blue endless sky, and see nothing, to hear nothing, was so eerie. It hit home, over and over, that this was not a normal week. That we were a nation afraid. Unsure of ourselves for maybe the first time in history. And I remember the feeling I got when I went for a walk one afternoon, glanced up — and saw one lone white stream, a single jet. How my heart almost stopped. How I clutched my dog’s leash so tight, she whined. Because all I could think was, why is it there? Where is it going? What’s it going to do when it gets there?

I still remember the twenty-four-hour live coverage. I still remember the shock of the very first commercial — a Toyota commercial. Staring at it, uncomprehending. Who cares about buying a freaking car? It was betrayal. It was hope.

Those are the things I can’t communicate to my students. I don’t know how. I wouldn’t even know where to start.

The sad thing is, I am sure that someday, they will have their own September 11.

I hope not. I would rather have to dig deep within myself, dredge up memories I’d rather not, and use my experiences to explain it to them, to try to make them understand, that for them to go through what we did on that day. To watch the towers collapse, knowing that rescue workers were still inside. To remember exactly what you were eating for breakfast, or how you spent that day, or which chair you collapsed into, unable to watch and unable to make yourself look away.

But I watch them, and I know that it’s coming. And I see in them myself, on September 10, 2001. Barely knowing what’s going on in the world. I try to tell them. We talk about ISIS. We talk about the war in Syria. We discuss the Mubarek regime and what it means for Middle East stability — or instability. And I see the totally blank looks. The ones that say Geez, Ms. Hill, let us get back to our Candy Crush already! Nothing’s going to happen. This doesn’t matter to us. 

Maybe it takes out-of-the-blue tragedies to make a generation wake up and realize we’re not alone in the world.