Teaching is a roller coaster. Things can be going well, then all of a sudden the world is spinning past and it feels like death is imminent. Well, today I kind of wished for that. I’m teaching intro psychology for the first time this semester. Most of the topics refresh easily — like memory, learning — but today we started biology. I am not a biologist. When I was in undergrad I took the minimal requirements for biological psychology and not a single concept more. I learned the material long enough to spit it out on the exams, and that was it. And here I am teaching it to people who have never encountered these ideas before — and to people who know some of the concepts much more deeply than this course requires.
Over the weekend I studied the material from the text, prepared my lessons for the week and felt relatively confident I could get through. As soon as my lesson started today, I felt like a fraud and it showed. I crumbled under the weight of this belief about myself that I don’t know biology. I stumbled and stuttered and read my notes quickly (my sympathetic nervous system in full force), I was tethered to my computer, the source of my slides (&, it seemed to me, my knowledge). I panicked and apologized and tried to save it with a (planned) demo and writing activities and still ended 10 minutes early. I left feeling horrified and embarrassed beyond belief.
Thankfully, a colleague was around to help me get through the initial horror and to brainstorm ideas about what to do now. She reminded me that just as one isn’t likely to learn this material the same way one learns other material in psychology, I’m can’t expect to teach it using the same methods I usually use. I can raise the level of abstraction a step or two (e.g, instead of “this is an fMRI” – here is a question we could examine using it) I could get some traction. I could own “this is the level we need to learn this at” and leave it there. I can bring in guest speakers to help answer difficult concepts. I can use comprehension checks for portions of the class so have time to address their questions before the next class. I can use TBL-style methods. And recognize that I just need time to really learn this well.
Then I got an email from a student who happens to know a lot about these processes and, very kindly, affirmed that I didn’t steer anyone in the wrong direction. This email reminded me why I teach — for the students who are there to learn and from whom I learn. So what do I take away from this experience today? Hope (and concrete ideas) for improvement in the future, gratitude for supportive people around me, and a hefty dose of humility.