“Go big or go home”—my first teaching experience

You are about to submit your dissertation and, with that, you will forever leave the comfort of a PhD student life. You have no clear plans for what next, so you are getting slightly worried about what will happen to you after graduation. That was exactly my situation about half a year ago. And then, somewhere in October 2019, I was asked if I would like to come and teach two courses at a university.

In Siberia.

Living nowhere near Siberia and having never visited Russia, my first reaction was: Haha, very funny. My immediate second reaction was: Hmm, but why not?

I was asked to suggest two courses that I would like to teach. No further demands or frameworks were given, but I knew that they wanted something related to writing in English. After all, School of Advanced Studies (SAS) at the University of Tyumen is a fully English-speaking, greenfield liberal arts institution. Definitely something to be excited about!

“I can’t do this!”

There were a few problems I immediately began worrying about. I had never taught before in my life. I had never made a syllabus. I did not even know what needs to be in a syllabus. I had never been to Russia before. I spoke zero Russian. Where in Siberia is Tyumen anyway? How does one get there? How would I get a visa? What if I would be a terrible teacher because I hate public speaking? What if I disappoint my friend and colleague, who invited me there, by being the worst teacher in the history of SAS?

These were only some of the thoughts that were whirling around in my head. As I’ve always been a person who likes trying out new things, however, I said “yes” to this very intriguing offer. From that point on, everything progressed quickly. I spent about a week drafting a plan for the courses. Ironically, I suggested to teach “public speaking”, focusing on something I feared myself, and “thinking on paper”, continuing the topics I had already worked on with ECHER earlier that year. Later in January I wrote two 10-page syllabi, and at the end of the month I flew to Tyumen, Siberia. As a friend of mine commented on this unique challenge before I left: “Go big or go home”, while laughing at the absurdity of it all.

 “…Or maybe I can after all”

Upon my arrival in Tyumen I knew I had already done something right. I had got good feedback on my syllabi and I had also learnt many students were interested in taking my 8-week courses. Although I was terrified before and at the start of my first classes, I quickly realised that I was actually enjoying them tremendously: First, I could teach what I was passionate about, in a brand-new building with state-of-the-art facilities. Second, my students turned out to be absolutely fantastic both in terms of enthusiasm and their level of English. I was teaching two groups of 15 students, who were extremely active during the classes and seemed to be genuinely enjoying my courses. Finally, after doing distance work almost non-stop for five years, I finally had a work community around me again. My work was appreciated and I felt I was valued as a teacher, even though I was a complete novice among the rest of the faculty.

For the next weeks I worked more intensively than I had probably ever done before. But I didn’t mind. I enjoyed the adrenaline and constant chaos around me. The worst scheduling crisis was when I only had ten minutes before a class and my slides still weren’t finished. Working at SAS was also the first time I didn’t say “no” to anything. Would you run two extra workshops? Ok. Would you like to comment on some student CVs? Yeah, sure. Could you please help with all these one million other things? Yes, I’d absolutely love to! Yet interestingly I also did not want to say “no”. I knew that my Siberia experience would only last for two months, after which I could go back to my cosy home office. So, why not make the most of it. And that I certainly did.

How does one prepare for the first teaching experience?

Before flying to Tyumen I did some minor exploration into the topic of “how to teach”. After all, I had never attended any pedagogy class or course in my life. I went through multiple online sources, providing advice for new teachers. I also read two books: Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning by Pooja K. Agarwal and Patrice M. Bain and Teaching college by Norman Eng. Both were very helpful and made me introduce some great practices in my classes, such as throwbacks to previously learned topics. Other than that, I wanted to show enthusiasm towards whatever I was teaching, be an encouraging instructor, care about the students and their learning, and provide them as much feedback and my time as possible.

Another thing that helped me survive through my first-time teaching experience was spending a great deal of time on crafting the two syllabi. I cannot stress enough how important it is to have a well-planned syllabus: It is much simpler to plan your classes, assessment, and activities when you can quickly see what you had planned to begin with. The syllabi made me feel more in control of what I was doing. Furthermore, the students could see what was expected of them in terms of learning and assessment. Maybe they read the syllabus, maybe they didn’t, but at least it existed if someone was to question why I was doing what I was doing.

Takeaways

Thinking back of the past months, there are not many things I would do differently. Perhaps I would prepare more in advance for each class and make sure that the students get enough relevant practice regarding the assessment. In fact, the assessment was the most difficult part for me throughout the experience. I find it difficult to grade students when I have to stick to the rule of “7-median”, which forces me to compare the students with each other, rather than assess everyone’s individual progress during the course. But this is something I have no control over, which is why I should not stress about it too much.

Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, I had to leave Siberia swiftly two weeks earlier than I had originally planned, and will have to finish both my courses online. Despite this, I will always remember SAS as an institution which provided me, a first-time teacher, an opportunity that not many other institutions would have: I was able to teach whatever I wanted in an extremely modern building with colleagues coming from around the world—all this while getting a glimpse of the Russian way of life and making some new friends, who I hope to stay in contact with in the future as well. That is what I would call a very good deal.

Final thank you’s

I should not end this post without saying a special “thank you” to two people. The first goes to SAS Head of Education Daniel Kontowski: Thank you for making me come to Siberia! The second thank you goes to SAS Faculty Support Specialist Fedor Gook, who stayed up very late to get me a plane ticket to Geneva: Thank you for getting me out of Siberia!

Image by Роман Владимирович from Pixabay

Melina Aarnikoivu (@MAarnikoivu) is a final-stage doctoral researcher at the Centre for Applied Language Studies at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. She never wanted to become a teacher but has now changed her mind. Her work can be found at ResearchGate.

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