It’s my twelfth September as a faculty member at Waterloo. A lot of those Septembers were spent agonizing with imposter syndrome, or struggling to craft a syllabus like an expert, or building new courses from scratch, or trying to teach someone else’s ideas, and failing to manage my email. Teaching is always front and centre in the fall for me–after the summer research term, I find I’m out of my teaching rhythm and prey to all the same insecurities as ever.
So I was surprised to gather my first grad class of the fall, and to teach them something, easily, on the first day of class. And then last week, they really took to the material and asked all kinds of hard questions about it and I was amazed to hear supportive answers fall out of my mouth: “ah, read this person who works on that very question!” or “oh, I know where you went astray there, let’s look at this page” or “we’re taking that up next week!” or “that would be a good research paper, and I have a ton of stuff for you if you want to come to my office.”
My syllabus came together really easily. I wasn’t trying to shove All The Readings in there to mask my lack of expertise. I wasn’t afraid that there wouldn’t be enough material, either. I just somehow started to really understand the constraints of a 12 week semester and how much we can take on and how much we just have to leave for another time. I’m assigning canonical texts–but now I know their authors. Sometimes the canonical text is by me.
I’m not scared. I’m not nervous. I’m not worried about being unmasked as a fraud. I’m confident about the assessments I’ve devised. I’ve got guest speakers. I seem to have the pacing under control.
What the hell happened? I don’t wish to come across as braggy–I’m listing the above simply to note that this feeling of ease and peace did not used to be my teaching reality. And now it is. And I like it.
There’s something to be said for growing into a role. A dear colleague of mine once counselled a much younger me that it takes three offerings of a course to get it right. And maybe it takes 12 years to become comfortable professing. I am tempted here to undermine myself by saying “I’m not too comfortable, don’t worry, there’s lots that’s hard or challenging” and while that’s true, I think that’s a pretty common idea. Rarer is this feeling of having the time and liberty to grow into a kind of grounding expertise and to have the freedom that comes from not being terrified or overwhelmed.
I feel like I have space to breathe. Room to move. Like, now that the voices in my head are not so insistently shouting my own incompetence at me, I can really listen to my students, really be in the moment. It’s a great feeling.
From duration, and persistence, and expertise, I have become both a better and a happier teacher. For those of you starting out in your teaching journeys, I will say: it gets better. For those of you running staffing and hiring at universities, I will say: this is why we need long term teachers, because this is a career, not piecework.