I have something important to tell you.
You may not believe me, but I promise that what I’m about to tell you is 1000% true and it’s important for you to sit with this knowledge:
Every working professor I know is A MESS when it comes to teaching.
I’m not saying they aren’t good teachers, or even great teachers.
I’m saying that they are a mess.
They all feel overwhelmed by the amount of grading they have. They are all preparing their lectures hours, or minutes, before class. Many of them are reusing a syllabus from the past or changing their syllabus on the fly.
[Fun Fact: Literally as I was writing this piece one of my favorite profs, an award-winning teacher, on campus asked if I could help them organize their graded in-class activities to hand back. This is one of the best teachers I know.]
When I was an undergraduate I revered my professors. They seemed so put-together, so smart, so grown-up. They were clever and funny and gave no fucks–all qualities I aspired to.
I began teaching myself in my MA program. I taught two sections of public speaking and, to prepare for this, there was a four day training on how to use the assigned textbook, and avoid doing things that could get the university sued. For the first semester, all the public speaking TAs met weekly to go over how to grade speeches and so on.
This is more teaching training and oversight than many first-time graduate student teachers or TAs get.
I was incredibly nervous to start teaching. I felt I could never measure up to the amazing teachers I had as an undergraduate. I wasn’t a real adult (TM). I didn’t have my shit together. I didn’t know anything about anything. What if these students saw right through me on the first day?!
I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had an amazing teaching mentor and she said something to me that I want to pass on to you:
You only ever need to be one day ahead of your students. If you’re a week ahead of them they’ll think you’re god.
Reader, over a decade of experience has taught me that these words are true.
Here’s the thing: The inside view always, always, always looks worse than the outside view.
When it comes to your teaching you have the inside view. You are constantly aware of how much there is to learn and, conversely, how little you really know.
In contrast, your students have the outside view. They are aware of how much more than them you know and how much they have to learn.
My favorite example of this is a grad student friend of mine getting their PhD in History. When they were assigned to teach the second half of the US History Survey (1877-Presentish) ordered several supplementary texts online including one about the speeches and policies of Henry Kissinger.
When I asked why on earth they were reading a book about Kissinger their response was, “Well, I don’t know that much about Kissinger and if a student asks a question about him I want to be able to answer it.”
Reader, that person, now a PhD in History, has taught the second half of the US Survey several times and no one has ever asked a nuanced question about Kissinger that would merit reading a whole book about him if he wasn’t already the subject of your dissertation.
Let go of the myth of the perfect professor who knows everything about their topic. If that person ever existed they don’t anymore. It’s just not how the US university system works these days.
All you need to be is one day ahead of your students. In practice, what that means is you go into the classroom that day knowing what’s about to happen and your student doesn’t.
That’s it. That’s all you have to do.
If you can begin or end the class by articulating how today’s material will connect to the next few classes they really will think you’re god.
Lastly, being prepared for the day doesn’t mean knowing everything for the day.
If you are lucky you will have clever students who ask nuanced questions that you may not know the answer to. That’s ok. It’s perfectly okay to tell a student, “I hadn’t thought of that but let me do some digging and get back to you next class.” Your students know that no one person can think of every angle on a topic and being honest about what you don’t know will often build your credibility.
When teaching, don’t think you have to be able to lay out the whole semester ahead of time. You can take it one day at a time and, for heaven’s sake, don’t read any books about Henry Kissinger.