Saturday, April 02, 2005

Gearing up, nearly

One of our friends is terribly stressed at the moment. This is because the week after next he is going to start a new job. He will be a university professor.

He is qualified, but has no teacher training (there never is for university professors, and isn't that stupid?) and it is not his original job. He is a (very successful) self-employed businessman. His leap into the academic world is a new direction for him. He is knowledgeable, clever, and naturally a good teacher (he is the person I proofread the paper for, so I know how good a teacher he is), and he is suffering from starting-a-new-job nerves.

I emailed to tell him he has nothing to worry about, but I don't expect it will help. In the first two or three years of teaching the first classes of semester are always nerve-wracking. You over-prepare like mad, have horrible paranoid dreams, and turn up on the first day exhausted because the night before you sleep badly. You lie awake with your eyes wide open in the darkness, staring at the invisible ceiling. You eyes just WILL NOT CLOSE. They are fixed open, as if they've been glued. When you try to close them they pop wide open again. You know you are wearing an expression of horror. You keep going over in your mind all the plans you have made, and finding problems with all of them. When you finally get a few minutes of sleep, you are visited by dreams of standing in front of a new class, opening your mouth and having no sound come out. You look down and discover that you are dressed perfectly from the waist up but are wearing nothing below the waist. You wake again, sweating, and do the staring at the ceiling thing until your eyes dry up and you have to remind yourself to blink.

The next day you walk to the classroom with huge bags under your eyes. You stomach does a little flip as you walk into the class, and you take a deep breath. You greet the class and nobody responds. You stomach does a BIG flip-flop, and you are convinced that the students all hate you already. But after that everything goes just fine, or at least good enough. You discover that you have prepared ten times as much as you needed to and now have about 300 spare photocopied handouts.

Fast forward a few years and you become an experienced teacher.

You forget exactly when the first day of classes is, and when you finally think to check your calendar you discover that it is NEXT WEEK! OH MY GOD THE VACATION WENT SO FAST! AND I HAVEN'T DONE ANYTHING I INTENDED TO DO! Then you forget about it again for a few days. Two days before classes are due to start you realize you must do SOMETHING, so you check your teaching notes to see what you did last semester. Fortunately you are now experienced enough that when you made your notes you also noted what didn't work very well, and what needed tweaking. You sit down and type in a few amendments to last semester's handouts for the first class, and print them out.

When you walk into your first class your stomach turns over. You remember that this always happens, take a deep breath, and greet the class. Nobody replies, because nobody ever does. If they are first year students they are frightened out of their wits, and stare at you blankly. (If they are second year or higher they are still chatting with each other at full volume and didn't notice you entering the room.)

You remember that you have to be stern in the first class, otherwise they'll walk all over you for the rest of semester. You are stern, and don't smile AT ALL. But then halfway through the class you realize that you don't have enough material to get you through fifty minutes, let alone ninety. What did I do last semester? you wonder, and suddenly remember that you had this problem last semester, too, but forgot to note it. Your brain flips into triple speed, and you make up a couple of introductory activities on the spot which work so brilliantly you end up not only smiling but laughing. The students have relaxed so much they have started being funny already, and you are going to have endless problems later when you need them to take you seriously. You still finish ten minutes early but decide that nobody will notice. On your way out of the classroom, having started off exactly the way you intended not to, you bump into your boss, who looks at his watch and frowns but says nothing.

By the end of the day you are exhausted.

By the end of the week you need another vacation. You have met 500 new students. You have class lists to type up over the weekend, and 18 lessons to plan if you didn't do them at the end of each day. You know that next week a few of the students will not appear again because they were in the wrong class, or couldn't wake up that early two weeks running, and you'll have five or six new students who 'forgot' semester started last week or who couldn't find the classroom. You make a note to remember to put aside fifteen minutes to tell them the course requirements again the second week, and to have extra photocopies. You type up the class lists despite knowing they'll be wrong, but you know that next week will be even busier and it's quicker to amend lists than to type them up from scratch. You won't have energy for that next week. (And the official lists won't arrive until six weeks into semester.)

The problem with being an experienced teacher is that procrastinating becomes so much easier. I envy our friend, who is hopelessly over-prepared and stressed out. He probably has the entire semester planned to the last detail, and once his first classes are over he'll settle down and have a lovely time using about a tenth of the materials he's prepared. I will be playing catch-up all semester.

But I can't prepare much, anyway. I have a few of my courses down pat - I've been teaching them for seven or eight years and will do pretty much the same as I've been doing, with a bit of tweaking and rewriting of bits and pieces. I can do that as I go. I get better at those ones every semester. I will not mess with something that works, but I will improve on it wherever I can.

But I also have to teach three new courses at one university this year, and haven't planned anything for them. I can't. When I asked about the level of the students the guy in charge of scheduling said he'd get back to me. Three weeks after my week-by-week syllabus plans were handed in I called him again (trying to show that I was taking my job seriously), and he told me apologetically that nobody was sure yet, and begged for my 'consideration.' When I asked how large the classes would be, he told me they were elective. This means that there is no limit. One of them is a 'public speaking' class. I've never taught public speaking before, and I'm not sure how that differs from the 'presentation' class I taught a few years ago. I asked, but nobody seemed quite sure what it meant. This means it is a fancy new name for a new course on the curriculum, and it sounded good at one of the endless meetings the faculty indulge in. In any case, nobody will check out what is going on in the classroom. They never do. Almost all of my classes at that university are these elective ones with fancy names, and students sign up on the first day. This means I could get four students or eighty, and most of the students will be there because it fits nicely into their part-time job schedules. They might be any level from 'can't speak English' to 'fluent,' and most likely a constellation of every possible level you can imagine, all in one class. That is normal. It also means that I will spend the rest of semester writing up expandable lesson plans. These lesson plans start off easy, and the lower level students spend the entire class at that level because it will take them that long, then I add bits progressively for the higher level students who will finish the first part in five minutes. Last semester I had a class there with only twelve students, but had to write four different lesson plans every week for the different levels. I had students who didn't know the alphabet in the same class as students who could converse fluently, and two levels (roughly) in between. Stupid, stupid, stupid system.

Aside (actually this entire post is an aside as I've forgotten what the point was anyway):
One year I was expected to teach "Eigo Hyogen (spoken)" (i.e. "English expression (spoken)," as opposed to "English Hyogen," or "Eigo Hyogen (written)," or "Eigo Communication," or "Oral Communication," or "Eigo Conversation", all of which I have also taught there; I think they throw a bunch of English and Japanese words into a hat and pull them out at random) to a class of eighty mixed-level students in a classroom that seated sixty. It was an interesting experience. That was also when I found out what happens when a teacher complains. You get apologised to a lot, nothing changes, and you discover you've acquired a reputation for being a 'gaijin troublemaker.'

Where was I? Oh yes, planning.

My experience tells me there is no use in my planning anything much beyond the first, introductory classes, particularly at that one university which is now taking in a lot of foreign students and not streaming them according to their language level. I will not know the level of the students or the class numbers until I meet them. The university seems to have no concept of either of these things being important in language learning, even for English majors. So I will do what I always do: outline the (necessarily vague) course requirements, give some sort of introductory writing assignment, see what they write, wander around the room attempting to chat with various students, get a feel for the class, and then get them doing the same or a similar activity verbally so they can get to know each other a bit and I can get to hear them using what English they have. Then I'll come home and frantically write up lesson plans for the next classes and a rough plan for the rest of semester based on what I learned.

So I envy our friend, despite the anxiety he is suffering from now. He will be lecturing, not teaching a skill. He will be teaching graduate classes, of adult students who are there to learn, not to have a holiday. And because he is (a) Japanese and (b) not a lowly language teacher he got permanent tenure automatically with the job, and will have about five or six classes a week instead of one year contracts and the eighteen classes I have to take on to survive as a part-timer (and he will be paid about double what I get). He'll have his own office and a research budget and office hours and a secretary to do his photocopying and so on. He can plan ahead, knowing that his students will be already knowledgeable and are prepared to study. (Of course he will also have the obligatory meetings. More on meetings some other time. We part-timers are excused from meetings, and as Kay would tell you - if she had time to write these days - this almost makes up for everything.)

Our friend is stressed because he is worried his students will know more than he does. (The one thing I don't have to worry about.) He will soon find out that is not true, and then he'll be fine.

I am trying to tell myself that I love my job because it is a CHALLENGE, and I LIKE challenge. I've had other jobs, and tired of them all after a while. Challenge is GOOD.

But I have a sneaking suspicion that the real reason I like my job is that we get these lovely long vacations during which I operate at half speed, and then long semesters where I'm constantly at triple speed and constantly under stress, and that's the sort of person I am. I don't have an in-between setting.

The one thing I'm really worried about is that I haven't gained enough weight this vacation. I always lose weight during semester, and despite the gym venture (still going strong!) I haven't been able to pile on the necessary few kilos that will drop off during semester. But I am stronger than I usually am before classes start. Usually I'm so feeble from inactivity that the first week almost kills me, and that's just from lifting my bag, which doubles as an office. So perhaps it won't be a problem. Perhaps I won't be so tired I forget to eat. Also, my schedule is a little better this year. (Well, Thursdays and Fridays are worse, but the rest of the week is better.)

You can expect my blogging to drop a little the week after next. However, it is quite likely to increase dramatically after that as I accelerate into the triple speed thing. Wheeeee! I'll be complaining and moaning about absolutely everything, but secretly I'll be exhilarated. Pissed off, but exhilarated. I'll be in a permanent state of righteous indignation at the ridiculousness of my job, and loving it.

In the meantime I still have another whole week of procrastinating to do.


Jennifer said...

God, I know those feelings. All too well.

Enjoy your week of procrastination!


Badaunt said...

I'm amazed you read to the end! The post is FAR too long and could do with some serious editing.

There is one little job I can't procrastinate any more - I have to type up a handout TODAY, because I want The Man to translate it for me. "I need this by tomorrow" the day before classes start is likely to result in divorce.

But I think I'll go to the gym first.

Andy N. said...

Ah, Ms BadAunt, you cheat: having the Man doing your translations. Tsk, tsk. ;) (not only have I read to the end of this post, but all the ones I've missed for the past two weeks - my poor brain needed a break from other thoughts and compositions)

THANK YOU, partially for your artful storytelling, and for 'being here' in thought at least.

melinama said...

Now that my taxes are almost done I have time to visit the neighborhood. Some great stories lately!!!

I taught "Songs for Non-Singers" for about 20 years. When I started, I was very over prepared, with many exercises and alternate plans for every class (my students were also of very different abilities). But in the last few years I didn't prepare at all. My preparation for class was to find my pitchpipe and my car keys. i used only two exercises. I knew why people had come and what they needed. That was both wonderful and boring.

Lippy said...

It may be a long post, Badaunt, but a goodie. It makes me kind of glad that I keep resisting 'invitations' to take up tertiary teaching myself. Every time I'm asked, it all sounds exciting and challenging, and I remember I've enjoyed being a guest teacher from time to time, but then reality hits and I know I'd better stick to tech support. I can always hang up on my users ;-)

Oh yes, I can't believe I haven't blogrolled you already! How very slack of me. Am rectifying that immediately...