What Teaching Has Taught Me

Written on November 30th, 2016

This semester I’ve been a teaching assistant for the Wisconsin School of Business’s LEAD course, a three-credit class designed specifically for direct admit students in their first semester on campus. Focusing on principles of leadership, ethics, authenticity, and professional development, the LEAD course seeks to bring new students into the business world in the most holistic manner possible. I took this class myself as a freshman and feel immensely passionate about the self-exploration and important content it explores.

I’ve loved holding this position and am saddened by the quickly approaching end of the semester; it’s absurd to think that in just a few weeks my job as a TA will be over, and part of me wishes it could go on indefinitely. The joy of connecting with other students and staff in such an influential manner has been overwhelming. And while my job description has been to teach, it’s safe to say that I’ve also done a good deal of learning.

Here are some of my biggest takeaways.

Everyone is fighting their own battles.
This is something I’ve been pretty acutely aware of for a few years now, but every so often I go through an experience that just emphasizes it even more. Being a TA is definitely one of those experiences. The truth is that everyone you meet is dealing with some sort of baggage; it’s so easy to get caught up in our own obligations and struggles, but it’s absolutely vital to remember that you are not the only three-dimensional human on the planet.

Every student I’ve taught is dealing with countless things on top of their schoolwork for the LEAD course. Every TA I’ve worked with is also struggling to manage the numerous parts of their lives that don’t involve this particular job. Even my boss has a whole world on her plate, and I’ve learned over the course of the semester that it is never fair to judge someone on only a fraction of who they are. The truth is that sometimes we all fall short – but in the grand context of the challenges we face each day, this is nothing to be ashamed of.

Every single person you meet, no matter where they fall in the hierarchy of your relationships, is going through their own alloyed array of experiences. The best thing we can do is try to offer some understanding and support.

Inclusivity is important.
Have you ever felt personally ostracized by someone around you making a sweeping generalization without thinking? I know I have. It’s easy to feel like you should just brush it off, but the truth is that you have a right to feel harmed by a non-inclusive comment. You have a right to your feelings and your beliefs – and everyone around you has that right, too.

Many people think that there are more important battles to fight than the one involving inclusivity, and I will concede that sometimes focusing too intently on watching every word you speak can ultimately detract from your message. But with that said, inclusivity is still absolutely vital to creating psychological safety in any environment, especially the classroom.

Sure, there have been times where I’ve said “you guys” instead of “you all” when talking to my students, and I haven’t let it get to me too much. We can’t all practice perfect inclusive language one-hundred-percent of the time. But I’ve learned that it is important to at least be conscious of the unintended effects your words might have.

Take, for example, a simple comment along the lines of “we’ve all had this experience” or “everybody loves game days!” While innocently intended and perhaps not drastically harmful, these words can still make someone who hasn’t had that experience or who doesn’t love game days feel like they don’t belong. I’ve been in this exact situation before, subtly wondering if there is perhaps something about me that is wrong or not normal. And I know that no matter how many other “bigger” issues there might be in the world, I never want a student in my classroom or a friend in my circle to feel that way.

Teaching is hard.
It is. Much harder than I had ever thought. Some days I finish sitting through my own lectures and the last thing I want to do is facilitate 75 minutes of curriculum to students just like me… but there’s no way around it. As the daughter of a teacher/principal/counselor/million other amazingly involved things, I’ve always had a fair amount of appreciation for education staff, but nothing could have prepared me for the reality that is controlling a classroom.

Every day as I stand in front of 22 amazing first-year students and two amazing co-staff members, a hundred jumbled thoughts leap through my brain. I worry that I won’t capture the most important takeaways of the curriculum. I stress that my students won’t like me. I fear that I will be boring, or inept, or completely unqualified to take questions and offer advice. It’s a scary thing to have 22 pairs of wide freshmen eyes staring at you, especially when what you desire more than anything is to have a positive, lasting impact. All I want is to change everyone’s lives for the better… small feat, right?

All sarcasm aside, teaching is immensely difficult. You can never fully prepare for how the classroom dynamics will actually play out in a given discussion. You can’t help the fact that some of your biggest content will fall on intense exam weeks, or that some of your students might never buy in to what you’re teaching. It’s a stressful job… but I’ve taken that stress as a blessing, because it only shows how much I care. The worry comes with the territory. I may only be a year older than the students with whom I’m working, but that doesn’t change the fact that I feel immensely proud and protective of each one of them.

Remember that your professors and TA’s are doing their best. Remember that being in charge of a class’s learning is an intense, frightening, difficult thing. Most of all, remember that no one is perfect… not even your teachers. It’s easy to place educational figures on pedestals that demand they know everything under the sun, but they don’t, and they never will. And that’s okay.

Teaching isn’t easy. Neither is being a student. The two experiences are much more similar than we tend to realize.

Relationships and memories are the greatest form of compensation.
Yes, I am paid to be a teaching assistant. And though I’m thankful for the monetary benefit that comes from my hard work, what I’ve found to be more important than each payday is the quality of the relationships and memories I’ve made over the course of the semester. I look forward to the bi-weekly increase in my bank account, I won’t lie – but what I yearn for even more is our weekly staff meetings and curriculum planning where I get to feel like a valuable member of a hardworking team.

Nothing is more satisfying than building strong relationships. My friendship with my co-TA has been one of the greatest joys of my semester, and the rapport I feel with my boss and co-instructor is an indescribable gift. Every Thursday I get to spend two hours with ten TAs who are dedicated, bright, and downright hilarious. I have countless fond memories of long days of training, bonding over the stress of exams, laughing over awkward moments of facilitation, and falling into rabbit holes of digressed conversation. We’ve had our struggles and we’ve had our moments, but we are one damn good team.

And I wouldn’t trade those experiences for all the money in the world.