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Guest Post: TA Reflections: Cat Photos are Relevant, Aren’t They?

At a September teaching assistant workshop organized by Dalhousie’s Centre for Learning and Teaching, one of the facilitators remarked that teaching shouldn’t be a performance.  While the person partially meant that teaching shouldn’t be about entertaining students or being seen as “cool” (if “coolness” is still an appropriate gauge, that is), their comment stuck with me as a general way of reflecting on teaching style.  At the end of the term and the beginning of a new one, I find myself re-evaluating my own style of delivery and wondering why I do what I do.
As a painfully shy introvert, I’ve been more than a little surprised to discover the energy I bring to the classroom.  Teaching 30 students in a tutorial?  No problem.  For someone who has been always terrified of speaking to an audience – even for my own coursework – teaching has been an uplifting experience.  It has shown me that I do have meaningful things to say and that I am more than capable of expressing them on the spot with lots of faces staring at me.  There are still lots of anxieties about whether I’m teaching effectively or feebly gesturing in the dark, and I still get jitters before a class.  But for the most part I really enjoy the challenge of interacting with my students and finding ways to communicate material so that they can find value in it.
Of course, being the over-thinker that I am, in my end of term inventory I’ve now been re-considering my classroom energy – is it more performance-based, stemming from a desire to entertain?  Or does it indicate a deeper level of participation in the classroom environment?  Am I too focused on getting a smile?  Or am I not really as interesting as I think I am?  I struggle with these questions about how I teach and how I am perceived by my students.  However, I tend to think that my surprising amount of classroom energy is less an issue of performance and more one of collaboration, and not solely because I’m terrible at acting.  If there isn’t some energy going on, things are going to be dead, and that’s not productive for anyone.  I can’t expect the students to have any real engagement with their learning if I don’t show my commitment to what they’re expected to study.  In short, energy demonstrates my interest in the material I’m teaching and my love for ideas, literature, and conversation; I take my tutorial duties seriously, and I also love interacting with students and their perspectives on the texts we read and the concepts that we cover.
One small way I try to communicate this energy and interest is through posting lots of pictures in my slides.  Photos of my darling cats in boxes? Lots.  Lolcats on grammar?  Check.  Shamelessly adorable photos of my parents’ golden retriever puppy?  Definitely. 
It’s not a coincidence that these photos are visual aids that break up the monotony of word-centred slides.  There are only so many text-based grammar examples that students can reasonably be expected to follow, otherwise the examples blur together and cease having relevant meaning.  I’m thus a huge believer in bringing in images, be they personal photos of my animal co-habitants or contemporary memes (one does not simply forget about pop culture references).  Of course, this could just be my attempt to amuse myself while teaching without any real benefit for my students.  But when I asked for mid-year feedback from my students, one of the things they consistently noted was how enjoyable the use of animal photos and other images were.  They really do find them useful – or at least memorable – and it’s comforting that amusing or striking examples can help boost learning retention.  And while I know there’s substantial debate about the effectiveness and utility of evaluations, as a new teacher I’m still figuring out to navigate student responses and gather input from them on how I teach.
In an ideal learning environment, I’d want my students to find the classroom enjoyable and critically stimulating; personal energy and images are a way to convey my engagement with what I’m teaching.  I take the material seriously enough to have fun with it, and I hope my students do, too.  This isn’t to say that the questions about how I teach will ever stop, but I trust that these questions indicate a desire to continually re-consider and improve my pedagogy rather than becoming trapped in stasis.

Brandi Estey-Burtt is a PhD student in the Department of English at Dalhousie University.