Country of Origin: (Hawai`i) United States of America
My first day of teaching still haunts me to this day.
Not because it was a bad experience, although there were many things I would do differently if I could, but because it was the fact that I was teaching. Even though I majored in English as an undergraduate and master’s student, it was difficult for me to imagine myself in front of the classroom as a teacher.
I was notorious for doubting myself. Heck, still today, even when it’s been five years since I started teaching.
Upon earning my Master’s of Arts degree in English in Spring 2018 from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, I secured a lecturing position to teach one section of English 100 for the Fall 2018 semester at the same university. I had spoken to the Associate Director of the English department earlier in the Spring semester to see if I could teach at least one section for the following Fall semester. It was a long shot considering I would be a freshly graduated master’s student applying as an adjunct lecturer. I would be at the bottom of the list. But lucky for me, I had reached out way in advance and was able to secure a course.
As summer was ending and the Fall semester approached, I felt stressed out because I had no idea of what I was doing. Granted, I was overthinking then, but that was how I operated. I wasn’t sure how I would deliver lessons, what I should talk about, how to plan group discussions and activities, the works. I spent time developing my course syllabus, schedule and major assignments. I was also able to give a sample lecture during a pre-semester training session that involved a lesson, group activity and feedback from a volunteer audience consisting of professors and graduate students in the English department. Fortunately, I had a lot of exposure to teaching pedagogy and materials as a graduate student in the master’s program. I had been a writing mentor and received a lot of training.
But even then, it was still nerve-wracking.
I never taught my own class before. I remember that I started to second guess all the subjects I planned on teaching: freewriting, the writing process, thesis statements, topic sentences, transitions, evaluating sources, etc. I mean, I knew all of those subjects by heart because I spent so much time engaging with them during graduate school. But I started to think about how I would mess these topics up for students or how I wouldn’t make sense explaining them.
I thought about all of the worst things that could happen on my first day of teaching.
Lucky for me, I had a great support system of fellow graduate students who were in the same boat. While some had prior teaching experience, there were a handful of others that didn’t. We were able to rejoice in our nervousness as we were about to start teaching for the first time.
“I honestly don’t know how the semester will turn out. I still look like an undergraduate student. What if they don’t listen to me?”
“I feel like my lessons are going to be hard to understand.”
“What if my students don’t even listen to me?”
We all felt this way. I started to feel more and more unsure as the first day of the semester approached. I reached out to one of my advisors, Dr. Sarah Allen, who was (and still is) an associate professor of Composition and Rhetoric in UHM’s English department. She gave me a lot of helpful advice. “Just do it,” she said. “The students don’t know what you don’t know. You’ve been in the classroom. You know how it works. YOU can do this. Be yourself. Be honest with your students. I believe in you.”
It meant a lot to hear that bit of advice from her. To hear that she believed in me.
Remember earlier how I said I constantly doubt myself? I was doubting myself big time the day before the semester started. But I kept reminding myself of the advice that Dr. Allen gave me.
August 20, 2018.
The first day of the Fall semester.
I wore a long-sleeve button-up shirt with jeans and dress shoes. I wanted to look professional for my students but also feel comfortable with what I was wearing. My partner at the time was in my office, trying to calm me down. I was extremely nervous, and I even remember pacing back and forth in my little office in Kuykendall Hall. She reassured me that it was going to be fine, that it was just the first day of the semester, and that I was going to cover the syllabus and do introductions with the class. That helped ease my mind. I also replayed Dr. Allen’s advice in my head as I walked up to the fourth floor where my classroom was.
Once I walked in, I blacked out.
No, not as in passing out. But blacking out as in getting into the zone of teaching. With 5 minutes to spare, I made my way to the classroom computer and worked on pulling up the class roster, the syllabus and then waited for class to start. Students slowly started to trickle in after me and sat down. I remember there were a mix of local students from Hawaiʻi and students from the mainland U.S. in the class.
Once class started, I was sweating profusely (which I tend to do, regardless of the situation), but I was able to find my groove once I started talking. I let my students know how I was feeling and, to my surprise, they expressed that they were also nervous. They were college freshmen, after all, and they were in a new environment as well. That just added to my sense of ease because I realized that we were both new to that space and it was okay to be nervous. We would navigate this new environment together.
I can’t remember everything that happened on that first day, but I remember feeling a weight lifted off of my chest once I got back to my office. Going through the syllabus and having the students introduce themselves wasn’t so bad after all. I honestly made it a bigger deal than it had to be, mainly because I was nervous and stressed out that it was going to be a failure. Who was I kidding? It was the first day of the semester. It was new for all of us.
I shared my feelings with my partner, Dr. Allen, and other graduate students who taught later that day. It turned out that everything I experienced was completely normal. It was normal to be nervous, whether it was my first or 30th day of teaching. I couldn’t expect everything to be perfect. It was perfectly okay to make mistakes. Dr. Allen reiterated those statements to me throughout the semester. “You can be your own worst critic sometimes, Dr. Allen said, “but rather than focusing on what you did wrong, try to focus on what you did right, what worked well, and build on that moving forward.”
Those words still stick with me today. Even though I’ve been teaching for five years now, I still get nervous on the first day, the 20th day and even the last day.
But you know what the best part about it is? Connecting with my students. Helping them improve their writing. Seeing them succeed. Building relationships that last beyond our time together in class.
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