Being a postgraduate tutor has been one of the best things I’ve ever done, hands down. I was so nervous when I was offered my first classes, teaching medieval literature (from Old English riddles to Chaucer and Henryson) to second year undergraduates. As is typical for me, I ended up spending a lot of time wondering how I could get out of it – it felt like it was going to be too much. Even before my second round of teaching I was terrified, particularly because I was not only teaching medieval literature this time round, but Renaissance literature as well, which is not my primary area of expertise. But teaching has actually given me more than I could possibly have imagined, and I strongly encourage every PhD student who has the opportunity to teach to seriously consider it. Before anyone jumps into it, however, I thought I should share a few of the things you should know about being a postgraduate tutor.
You will often feel like you have no idea what you’re doing
One of the hardest lessons I have learnt from teaching is that you can never be fully prepared. When I started, I did all the training I had to do, and had my lessons planned out thoroughly – I was prepared as I could be. But when I got into the room a million uncontrollable and unanticipated factors made my preparation seem futile. Obviously it’s not, and planning is key when you’re teaching, but for a control-freak like me all of the unknowns were a bit of a shock: the type of group you get, quiet or outgoing; the kind of questions you get asked, some of which I couldn’t have anticipated in a million years; students coming prepared or unprepared; students who have other things going on that you need to account for, such as medical or mental health problems – all of these factors that you can’t really plan for, and will make you feel like you’re floundering the first time you teach. But that’s okay – you can figure that out as you go. Teaching is an art, not a science, and it will take some time to adjust. You won’t feel like a ‘teacher’ right away.
You will spend far more time on teaching than you get paid for
This is probably really obvious, but it is something that I need to talk about, as it’s something that I never fully appreciated before I started teaching. I always thought that if I was smart with my time, I would be able to only work the hours I was paid for (1 hour prep a week). That simply wasn’t the case. In order to prepare a really good lesson, I had to spend far more time than I was given. It’s a sacrifice, but I’ve found that it’s worth doing, so that I feel prepared and I’m giving the most I can possibly give to my students. The same goes for marking – I’m pretty sure I take longer to mark than I’m paid for, but what matters more to me is giving my students the feedback they deserve so that they can improve, and get the most out of my class.
You will have support
One of the best things about teaching for me is that it’s not a sole endeavour. When you do a PhD, you often feel isolated, but the great thing about teaching is that suddenly you’re part of a very tight-knit community of colleagues. In my first year of teaching I had a lot of complicated cases – students with mental health problems, students who were at risk of not graduating to honours level study, students who didn’t hand work in on time, students who requested extensions. But when any issue arose there was always someone on hand to help. I also received a lot of support in terms of marking, lesson planning, and seminar delivery. It’s great to feel so involved in the school, part of the teaching community.
It may just be the most rewarding thing you’ve ever done
What I have found most rewarding is when my students have clearly enjoyed their tutorials. There’s a good atmosphere in the room, and lively and insightful discussion. It’s also great when you get to mark a truly fantastic essay, where its writer has clearly engaged with the texts they’re working with, and put real thought into their analysis. A few students have even told me that though they weren’t interested in medieval literature prior to taking the module, after learning more they planned to carry on with it. This is the best it gets as a teacher, knowing you’ve ignited some passion in your students – something that is not easy when you teach medieval literature (the lack of enthusiasm in my classes on Old English language is palpable). Sharing my passion has been one of the most fantastic things – it’s not something I often get to do since none of my friends know much about my area. As a teacher, you also have the capacity to be able to help students who are struggling, which is such a privilege (especially for me since I was once one of those struggling undergraduates. Now, I get to pay forward all the help I received from my own tutors).
While it’s not always easy being a postgraduate tutor, I can honestly say that it’s been one of the best experiences I’ve had while being a PhD student. I’m so glad that I didn’t let my anxieties and insecurities (imposter syndrome comes to mind – ‘I don’t even know what I’m doing, how am I qualified to teach anyone else?!’) hold me back – and neither should anyone else.
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