What keeps me awake at night is anxiety about the biggest challenge of my teaching role: forging up to 30 disparate postgraduate students into a supportive, creative, participative community of scholars – beginning on the first day of term when they don’t know anyone else and may have just arrived in the country.
I set a tone and ethos of active participation, from day one, to help the group bond and create a buzz. Teaching a socially cohesive, supportive and inclusive group delivers learning outcomes way above and beyond the subject material being taught.
Of course, students have wildly different levels of self-confidence, language fluency, knowledge and experience – but. I need them all to feel comfortable taking a risk, trying something new, practising skills, making contributions, asking questions, and not being afraid to look silly.
It starts with something simple. Learning names is important, to help students feel recognised and acknowledged as individuals, and we wear name stickers for weeks. I mix up small groups every week to prevent cliques forming, and help everyone feel confident working with their classmates.
We ‘power pose’ and try psychological techniques to develop public speaking skills. I ask everyone to encourage the less confident to ‘have a go at practising’ presenting to the class, rather than rely on the most vocal to always take the floor. We play improvisation games to build collaboration and teamwork, active listening skills and creativity. I encourage students to see experimentation and failure as a chance to learn, not something to fear, and aim to help them lose the constraints of self-consciousness that so often holds us back.
In all of this I lead by example, bringing my authentic self to class and jumping off any pedestal they may have imagined. Most memorably, I perform semi-improvised comedy sketches with my colleagues, to help convey complex abstract theoretical debates in an engaging manner. Once students have seen us in comedy specs and wigs, operating way beyond our skill sets, the classroom atmosphere shifts: not only do they understand the topics better, but students relax and see us as much more approachable, so they feel comfortable asking questions. All of this breaks down barriers and helps students learn more effectively.
How is it going so far? Nightmare, or living the dream? Well, I’m writing this after the first week of teaching, and this year’s group have an energy and enthusiasm to participate, that promises a great three months ahead. I’m starting to sleep easier.