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Dear incoming MFA’ers…
A few words on 1010, balance, and getting grounded.
My name is Quinnie and I am writing to tell you about my experience teaching 1010 and how I came to see teaching as a wonderful challenge in my life and a necessary balance for my creative endeavors.
I think my biggest concern coming into the MFA was time management. How was I going to teach and take my own classes and write? For starters, I got a daily planner. And then I went to the 1010 colloquium held in August. The colloquium is a wonderful opportunity to gain a ton of skills (both pedagogical and practical) in only a week. Before you walk into the classroom for the first time, you will be equipped with handouts, syllabi, activity ideas, and a teaching mentor. Your mentor will be a 1010 instructor in the department who you will meet with in small groups once a week. She or he will be there to support you, field questions, and work with you throughout the year. During my first semester, I think I was in my mentor’s office three times a week (or, every day). She helped me in innumerable ways. The instructors in the English Department are incredible resources and I highly recommend utilizing their years of teaching and writing experience.
During my first semester, the time management aspect of MFA life was challenging. I was a new teacher and I hadn’t been in school in more than 5 years. It was all new. I realized, though, as the days came and went, that I did have time to do all three: write, read, and teach. It meant that some days I spent more time on lesson planning and grading papers, and other days I spent more time writing or reading. It meant I had to watch the clock to make sure I wasn’t getting bogged down with grading (I actually use a kitchen timer when I grade). All are time consuming activities (reading, writing, teaching), but they do not have to be separate. They all inform one another, either directly or indirectly.
As a writer, I spend a lot of time in my head. Lines, stanzas, paragraphs, characters, and narrative spin through my head all day. Most of the time, I love it. But there are the days when I just want to stop the spinning. And that’s where teaching comes in for me. Teaching is a time when I have to be transparent, engaged, and right there for my students. I have to be clear and concise with my language, energetic, and prepared. Teaching over the last two years became a relief in a lot of ways. A time when I can be hyper-focused on my students and the lesson for the day. A time when I could forget about that pesky line break. Teaching keeps me grounded and gives me this opportunity throughout the week to change gears, get out of my head, and show up for a classroom of students.
The learning curve for me as a teacher was steep; each day and week I became more comfortable and confident in my teaching. Although the first few days were nerve-wracking, I feel like I never really looked back after that first week. Of course, some days in the classroom are better than others, but even the tough days offer me a chance to learn and grow. With each success and failure, I learn. Not just about thesis statements and topic sentences, but about how to communicate effectively and engage students.
Being a GA is an interesting position to be in because, while you are here to write first and foremost, your GA-ship is also very important. It’s not just important for you, but also for the students and the department. There will be days when you don’t want to grade, nights spent talking to classmates about your students, and morning spent running around doing last minute preparations for class. The thing to remember, especially during those stressful moments, is that the opportunity to teach students is a real honor. And a challenge. And an opportunity to learn and grow.
I have loved my past two years of teaching so much that I am continuing my teaching career next year (and hopefully beyond). After putting so much time and effort into teaching and writing, I see the importance and relationship between the two. They are not, as I originally thought, mutually exclusive. Doing both, on a daily and weekly basis, has improved my skills as a writer and a teacher and a reader. When I start spinning off into the crazy world of one, I can enter the other. And I think that is a major reason why I have found so much success over the past two years. Everything you do during the next two years, from snow shoeing with a visiting writer, to teaching freshman how to structure a paragraph, to polishing a new short story for workshop, to reading a novel for a literature class, to chatting with classmates at the bar…it all adds up beautifully.
Dear New MFA Student,
First, I’d like to say congratulations on being part of the University of Wyoming’s MFA program. I know you will find it a nurturing program that offers unique opportunities and challenges that will contribute to some exciting changes and inspiration for your work.
Among those opportunities and challenges is the teaching experience. While you are working toward your MFA you will be teaching English Composition, which I found incredibly rewarding. One of the most important things to remember is that your role in teaching 1010 is what you make of it. I would like to share with you some of my own experience teaching here at UW. Teaching was something that I both feared and was curious about when I started the program. It didn’t take long for me to realize it was literally life-changing. Even if you don’t plan to teach after receiving your MFA, I believe there is much you can do as a teacher, and much teaching can do for you.
Teaching Comp can, for some people, feel pedestrian. However, your role as a 1010 teacher is vital. All undergraduates at UW are required to take 1010 (unless they test out of it), so it can sometimes feel like a “have to” course for them. These students are usually just starting their college careers; they can often feel overwhelmed (which is how most of us feel starting the MFA). This makes the fact that you are their teacher more important because you, too, are a student. You have the perspective these students need and crave. In my experience, students will take Comp as seriously as the teacher does. Because of this, it is important to remind students at each stage of the semester why they are part of the class and the importance of the class in their overall college career.
When I started teaching, I had certain assumptions about the students. Many of these were backed up by people already teaching in the program. I heard the students were quiet, but respectful, and that getting them to participate in class was difficult. But as the semester passed, I realized those ideas were assumptions, not facts. In fact, by showing the students I was as invested as they were not only in the class but in each student, they opened up. Like most other college classes, they put into the class what I did. My point here is that I had to learn to take teaching 1010 seriously. These students are here for a reason, and we are part of that. They are people looking to learn—which is exactly why you are here—and they are starting in the same place we all did. By making the class a priority, we show the students respect and they will return that with enthusiasm.
I have found that teaching comp was a vital part of my MFA career, not just because it offered teaching experience, but also because it had an effect on my writing. One of the biggest problems I had before I came to UW was finding time to write. I hoped the MFA program would offer more time for me to work on writing. Then, once I started the program, I was concerned that I would spend more time doing homework and grading than writing. What I learned in the first semester was how important time management is. Teaching can sometimes feel overwhelming, especially for those of us who aren’t experienced, but the UW English department provides GA’s with resources, support, advice, and training to help us acclimate to the demands of teaching. And if I could impart one thing in this letter, it would be this: teaching is much, much easier after the first semester. Once you’ve developed a teaching plan and have a semester of experience behind you, the second semester is much less stressful and time management is easier.
There are times, though, when teaching is just a lot to handle. The grading can overtake anything else you are doing (especially in the first semester), the students get frustrated, and we as teachers get frustrated because we are, after all, trying to figure this all out—trying to learn how to be part of this class ourselves. During these times, it is most important to implement time management. I found when grading papers in the beginning, it was best to set a timer for 20 minutes per paper. Then I didn’t get lost in a paper for 45 minutes or an hour and feel like I was never going to finish. Twenty minutes is plenty of time to read through a paper a couple of times and pinpoint the areas that need improvement. But it also reinforces that we don’t need to mark every single problem—that can be too much for the students as well as the teacher. I also found that spreading out the grading over several days kept me from feeling crushed by papers. Otherwise, by the time I got to the last papers, I was so tired I didn’t have much left for those students. I also learned to put together my lesson plans for class several days in advance. While it may seem like over-preparing, it allowed me to think about the class in small moments during the days that followed—while walking to class or having lunch, for example—and by the time I got to 1010, I was well prepared. Allowing the day’s lesson plans to float around in my head was important because I was able to figure out problems before they occurred, think of better assignments than the ones I had planned, and develop strategies to try when others weren’t working. It’s not that I was thinking of 1010 all the time—more often I was writing something in my head or planning the evening at home—but having time and space between the lesson plan and the actual teaching day meant I wasn’t planning something an hour before class and then feeling rushed and unfocused during the class.
Even still, there were times when I felt unqualified to teach or unable to deal with situations in the classroom. These are the times when it is most important to really utilize the tools offered by UW’s Comp program. As new teachers we have access to mentors who can help guide us through difficult situations. These mentors and the Comp director have also put together example handouts, lesson plans, and trouble-shooting guides we can use in the classroom. There was never a time when I felt completely lost, because I was always able to find guidance and support within the program whenever I had a problem. My suggestion is to utilize these tools to the max. They are here for you and will make your teaching less overwhelming and more enjoyable.
All of this is to say you need to have time to write, too. I found that the more I planned for 1010—the more focused I was in the classroom—the better the class went. That translated into less stress about the class, which meant I didn’t spend a lot of time revising and reworking lesson plans further down the road. A certain amount of this is necessary, of course, but the better prepared I was initially, the less I struggled later on. And that means more and more time to write. Teaching doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t) leave you with no time to write. It is important to block off time when you will do nothing but write—no homework, no grading, just writing. But it is also great to take advantage of living in a small town: it’s a good idea to make use of those times when living here leaves you without hustle and bustle—between classes, while waiting for dinner, during your morning jog. Not only do these moments add up, but writing here and there throughout the day keeps you closer to the work, keeps the work in your head, and keeps other things—like teaching—from becoming bigger than the writing.
All the best,