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Teaching Concerns of New (and Not So New?) Teachers

The list of concerns was compiled from a qualitative analysis of 10 years of graduate teaching assistants’ online discussion posts. The 120 students wrote the posts in a three-credit course that prepared them to teach beginning communication courses. It’s a list that raises some interesting questions. Are the concerns legitimate? They are listed in order of importance. Does that order change as teaching experience accrues? Should it change? Which of these are ongoing concerns, and perhaps, most importantly, how do we deal with the issues raised by the concerns?

Here are their top teaching concerns.

Exhibiting command of the material – It’s about those questions new teachers are afraid they can’t answer and what that does to their credibility. At what point do we start realizing that what we don’t know enables us to join students in the learning adventure?

Balancing authority and rapport – “I don’t want to be some Patton-like instructor that rules with an iron fist,” writes one TA, but he also doesn’t want to get emails that greet him with “Yo” and call him “dude.” (p. 91) How do we balance being caring and empathetic with upholding standards? We can strike the balance with one student or in a course, but it tips easily, often unexpectedly.

Dealing with communication anxiety – Teaching involves public speaking, and that makes most people very nervous. After teaching for some years, we learn to control the anxiety. But does it ever go away? How do you feel on the first day of class?

Engaging students – The concern here: how to teach and not bore students. Perhaps this should be of greater concern to some faculty who either don’t know or don’t care that they’re boring students. The challenge is getting and keeping students interested in subject matter they pretty much expect to be boring. We acquire strategies. Some of them work, some of the time. It’s another of those ongoing quests.

Managing students’ perceptions – New teachers often look like students. It’s a concern that passes all too quickly.

Juggling roles – Interesting that right from the start, these new teachers weren’t so much concerned about transitioning between roles but about finding time for all of them. It’s another balance issue—finding time for all the responsibilities of an academic position and for life beyond work. If you care about teaching and want to do it well, it demands a lot of time. But how do we know when it’s consuming too much time?

Resolving grade complexities – The hodgepodge of concerns here started with making the judgment calls grading requires. It also included having high but reachable standards, being challenged about grading policies, and dealing with irate students who are firmly convinced they have been graded unfairly. Again, we acquire strategies along the way. Some of them work, some of the time. We get caught in the grades-matter conundrum. As long as they do, we have to be concerned, but being concerned inflates their importance still further.

Being memorable – These new teachers aspired to be remembered by their students, not just for course content but because the course had value beyond the content. Most of us begin teaching careers with high aspirations. Most of us discover that we infrequently end up changing students’ lives. Should we abandon attempts to be memorable for something more realistic?

Negotiating flexibility – It’s about when to enforce a course policy and when the student deserves a pass. It’s also about when to change an assignment that isn’t working, or when to adjust the calendar to tackle some major confusion in a class. Now it’s about cell phone policies—to take a stand, cave in, or find something in the middle. Is being appropriately flexible a skill that can be mastered?

Overcoming cultural differences – It was last on the list of concerns for these students, but at least it’s on the list. It’s a concern if you’re from a different culture and a concern if you’re teaching students who don’t belong to the majority group. It can be as straightforward as coming from the country and teaching urban students, or as confounding as cultural norms about gender and race. It’s an ongoing concern and deserves a place higher on the list.

Reference: Dannels, D. P. (2015). Teacher communication concerns revisited: Calling into question the gnawing pull towards equilibrium. Communication Education, 64 (1), 83-106.