Work | Teaching
How I faced my fear and launched a new career
There were more of them than there were of me.
We were probably equally apprehensive, though I didn’t know it then. As I gazed around the room, 140 pairs of eyes stared back at me.
How on earth had I found myself in this position?
A Career Change Beckons
Six months earlier, I’d been working as an editor for a national monthly magazine in Leicester, England. My managing editor had bullying tendencies and would rather have been doing my job than his own. The news editor, who reported to me (when he reported to anyone, that is) was lazy, insubordinate, and had an unfortunate personal hygiene problem. I was unhappy and ready for a change.
So when my old dissertation supervisor (who had seen me successfully through an MA in Media and Culture) suggested I apply for a journalism teaching vacancy in his university, I jumped at the chance. At the time, I felt that anything had to be better than where I was.
Feeling the Fear, Going For It Anyway
Although I’d filled in as a substitute for a few sessions the previous term, I didn’t really think they would hire me. I wasn’t sure how well those sessions had gone, and I didn’t even have a PhD. But my mentor said that wouldn’t be a problem as they were looking for someone with practical experience of journalism. At least I knew I had a lot of that under my belt.
Plus, it’s not often you get the opportunity to change career handed to you on a platter, so I decided to go for it. After all, I’d rather say I tried something and it didn’t work than spend the rest of my life wondering if I should have done it.
Getting Through the Interview
The first hurdle was the multi-part interview process. As well as a regular interview about my background, I had to come up with a sample lesson, present it to them, and answer questions about teaching.
Apart from the brief substitute gig, my only other teaching experience prior to this had been giving 11–15-year-old French children some English language practice. So it was a tall order, for sure. But I did my best, and with a little help from my friend, I aced the interview and started the job in May 2000.
What Happened to the Deadlines?
Then came the culture shock. I went from having lots of deadlines to having none because at that point in the term all the work had already been allocated. Worse yet, no-one was available to tell me exactly which modules I would be teaching and when they would be timetabled. I meandered through term three, picking up what useful information I could, then had a deliciously long summer holiday.
Surprise - You’re Teaching Everything!
In the end, I didn’t get a definitive answer on what exactly I’d be teaching until just before induction week in September. Journalism was on the list, of course, but that wasn’t a surprise. However, the fact that I’d be teaching first, second, third year, and MA classes was. Somehow I’d thought the teaching load would be lighter, but I was so wrong!
The big surprise was that I was scheduled to co-teach first-year media theory, a core module on the course. Nobody had mentioned that during the interview or the whole of the previous term. (It later turned out that they always give that to the new teachers.)
Productive, or Exhausted? Maybe Both!
Feverishly, I returned to the notes I had made while studying media theory on the MA, hit the books (there was no Google), and tried to come up with the first lecture. I finished it at about 2 AM in the morning before the 9 am class.
This was a cycle that would become all too familiar throughout my first year of teaching. It was compounded by the fact that I was also taking a compulsory course in teaching in higher education. So I was constantly exhausted.
My First University Teaching Experience
Finally, it was the first Monday of term. I went into the lecture theater to be faced by 140 nervous first-year students. They couldn’t have been more nervous than I was, though.
I arranged my notes in front of me, greeted the class and began, clinging to the lectern as though my life depended on it. The students couldn’t see my shaking knees and the faint sheen of perspiration on my forehead.
I gabbled through what had seemed a substantial one-hour lecture in about half an hour (nerves again) and found myself with 15 minutes to fill at the end. Luckily, the students had questions about the study program and other general questions, so that took up some time.
In the end, I let them go ten minutes early, reasoning that it was new to them as well, and I’d managed to avoid embarrassing myself too much. I staggered from the room and went off for a well-deserved cup of coffee, having learned a valuable lesson about lecture planning and delivery.
Settling Into the New Role
About halfway through the term, I would discover that the ideal lecture for a 50 minute slot was in the region of 2,300 words. If I paced myself and repeated quotes, I could make it last, and it was easier for students to take notes, too. I learned to slow down and eventually I bought a teachers’ watch with big numbers that I could see when it was lying on the desk so I could easily keep track of time and avoid shortchanging the students.
During the whole of the first year, that Monday class was always my toughest challenge. The only saving grace was having a co-teacher, so I only had to do it every other week. With the amount of prep needed for ALL my classes because I was so new, I appreciated the occasional respite. I managed the other classes more easily, though I still had plenty of late night prep because I was creating them all from scratch.
Surviving and Thriving
Somehow I made it to the end of the academic year. By the time year two came around, I was in the same happy position as most of my colleagues. I had notes for all the classes I’d be teaching, and though I made sure they were up to date, I didn’t have to change too much.
Just as well, because I kept studying for all the time I held that job, finally getting a second MA in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. (It ended up taking five years because of an admin issue on their end and a maternity leave issue on mine.)
What I Learned
I learned a lot from that teaching experience. Large crowds are still not my happy place, because I’m a confirmed introvert. But I learned that I could do what I had to, and I could even be good at it, inspiring and motivating students to take their own first steps into the profession I loved. And the attitude that made take those first steps into the unknown has allowed me to do many other new things, and have a richer life as a result.
This is an expanded version of a story originally published on Sharon’s Writing Lab.