Welcome back to the ‘Life of a PhD Student’ blog series. Last time, I gave a brief overview of my journey into the world of research and teaching, and thus my PhD. With this post, I wanted to dive right into the subject area of teaching. Now, this won’t be something that every PhD student will do. However, for anyone interested in remaining in academia, it seems like the role of ‘teacher’ or lecturer will always be edging closer and closer to you. So, how did this all happen for me?
Well, as I mentioned in the opening blog, I was accepted into a teaching scholarship. If I’m completely transparent, I did not expect to be accepted in the slightest. While perhaps a little defeatist of me, this made the surprise of being accepted all the better. This feeling was quickly surpassed by the sudden realisation that I would very soon (within a matter of weeks) be leading workshops and seminars on my own. Gulp!
For some people, this may not seem like too big a deal. However, for someone scared of public speaking and struggling with imposter syndrome a lot of the time… this seemed like it was going to be tough.
The early days of teaching
A quick peak into my mind would reveal that I am indeed a planner. I like to mentally prepare myself for any and all eventualities. So naturally, my approach to teaching was no different. For my first few sessions, I’d revised my materials non-stop. While this was the correct approach for me at the time, I’m almost certain I would’ve been coming across very nervous and not particularly natural to the students. But… it was a start!
With every session I found myself easing into the role more and more. Progress is never linear though and that was certainly the case here. I’d have some brilliant classes where I really felt the students were engaged… then the next session I’d find a class full of blank faces all awkwardly avoiding responding to any questions or activities I set. As I’d later explore in a teaching qualification course I undertook, this is a never-ending tribulation for teachers. Learning how to overcome it would appear to be a constant but often rewarding process.
Current teaching approaches
So, as someone who started off afraid public speaking and felt the need to relentlessly study the teaching materials, what am I like now?
In some respects, I’m very similar. I still like to ensure that I know the material inside and out. For me, this a way I can keep a handle on my nerves. That said, I’m very glad to find that the nerves have almost entirely gone. It is an interesting change, something that once terrified you is now just a routine part of your day. I feel incredibly lucky in that respect. Perhaps this is not too surprising though… when you’re doing a BSc or MSc, you might give presentations once or twice a term. This gives you no time to acclimatise to the role of presenter. Once you’re doing it week in week out, I think it really helps.
Despite that progress, I still have some areas I’m very keen to improve upon, such as increasing the energy I bring to a classroom. Having spoken to several experienced teachers, it comes across like a profession in which one’s own learning is never truly done – that’s something I’m looking forward to embracing.
Below are some thoughts that I would have found reassuring back when I was approaching my first class, so I thought I’d share them here:
- Nerves! You might be nervous and that’s okay. But remember, oftentimes, the students will be more nervous. They won’t even pick up on the fact that you took a second to gather your thoughts, stumbled on your words, or lost your place in a sentence.
- Practice! As much as it might feel awkward to gather your friends or family around and deliver your lesson to them, it can be massively helpful. Often, even if we know exactly what we want to say, practicing aloud is the only form of practice that ensures we can speak it fluidly.
- Breath! When watching some of the best speakers, you’ll notice them take pauses throughout. They’ll use these pauses for effect, yes, but also to help pace their talk. Use this breaks to take a deep breath and collect your thoughts. Not only will this help calm you down if you’re nervous, but it will also give you pause for breath while aiding your pacing.
All of this is to say, if you’re a new teacher and feeling nervous about starting out, that’s completely normal. It doesn’t always feel super helpful to hear in the moment, but its one of those things that simply does improve over time. The more you do it, the better you’ll get.
Now, I love teaching and would actively like for it to be a bigger part of my future career than I would have ever expected. Others will be different, but like with many things in life, its important to make the most of any opportunity you’re presented and to give it your all.
PhD Student and Associate Lecturer