A couple weeks ago, I waxed rather rhapsodic about how some of the things I love about teaching can be fulfilled through an administrative position. It got some hits and even a link from one of the Chronicle blogs, which is nice. And all of those things are still true.
In the last week and a half, I’ve been thinking more and more about the teaching. I’ve been, for lack of a better word, longing for the classroom. I miss it deeply. Last week, I dreamed that I went into a room full of my old students and walked around hugging them and talking to them. A few nights ago, I my eyes sprung open at 3 am and I had this singular, piercing thought: I have to be a high school teacher.
I’ve been thinking about why this is the case and wanted to write up the flip side of “Advising Magic,” about what advising lacks when it comes to fulfilling my inner pedagogue. I’m writing this from my own perspective: remember, I work in a specific place (each advising center has its quirks), and I have had a lifelong love for teaching. Depending on your background or goals, these may not apply to you. But if you’re a teaching junkie, read on…
1. Don’t get attached.
Advising is a bit of a revolving door. For example, the English major who I had so much fun with? She was reassigned to a different advisor for no discernable reason, so I won’t see her again (even though she sent me a really nice email assuring me that she “really liked me”). I’ve had great connections with two other students who I will likely never see again, one because she is probably leaving the University, and one because I told her about this AWESOME major that is PERFECT for her… that I don’t advise.
Sure, there are scenarios in which I could advise the same student for 3 semesters or more, but they seem to be the exception rather than the rule. That’s a drag.
2. Clinical or corporate, take your pick.
A couple of years ago, one of my co-teachers finished her degree and took a job as an advisor. Whenever we spoke about it, she said she liked it a lot (yes) but that it was very “corporate.” The word that has come to mind for me is “clinical.”
Advising is or can be corporate because it’s an administrative function. There are meetings: lots of meetings. Meetings about policies and protocol, which are constantly changing. We don’t have a lot of control over what we have to do (e.g., you now have to spend x hours a week using the new early alert system the University purchased!). You spend a lot more time writing emails and typing notes as an advisor. There are committees. If you don’t craft your calendar just right, you won’t have time to pee between student meetings. It’s definitely more of an office culture than a teaching culture, even though teaching is part of the job and our focus is on students.
For me, advising feels clinical compared to teaching. Students come to a reception area and check in. A student worker calls their name and sends them back to our offices, which are all identically set up (I’m desperately trying to de-beige-ify my office but it’s hard!). We meet and talk about the same issues and ask the same questions. We go over worksheets and handouts. We recommend that they come back in X weeks or months for a follow up. Often we are giving bad news. It reminds me a lot of the busy clinic where I take my girls: the people are top notch and the care is excellent, but you see a different nurse or doc every time, and even if the topic is personal or the visit warm, it’s difficult to build a relationship or a connection from visit to visit.
The pace is completely different from the classroom. The interactions don’t ebb, flow, rise, or fall. It’s regimented and sometimes a bit forced. And you just get so much less time with them.
3. I’m talking about academics, but I’m not doing academics.
I advise students who have declared a teaching interest, and whenever I talk to them about what draws them to teaching, I listen for them to describe a passion for learning. Lots of people are drawn to working with children or young adults, but do they care deeply about learning? Are they passionate about literacy or math? Do they want to help students succeed in school?
I really do. There’s something about school. It works for me. It matters to me. I think I can help kids when it comes to school.
My “thing” in graduate school, and in my teaching, was academic literacy for at-risk students, in particular, critical reading skills. I think reading is generally overlooked by college-level teachers, even among the comp crowd, where teaching is a big deal and everyone is interested in questions of academic development and such. I focused on reading because it’s so very, very important and so very, very hard to teach. I truly believe in the kind of teaching I do, which I believe improves students’ relationships with reading, helps them identify as readers, and generally makes things better. I think I have something to offer that’s special.
I don’t get to flex those muscles in advising. We discuss academics in general (“So, what are you going to do differently this semester when you retake Microeconomics?”) but I don’t work with students in the same way. Maybe that’s obvious, but I really miss that work.
3a. Subpoint: I don’t get to talk with kids about books.
Part of my “thing” is that every course I taught as a TA included self-selected reading for pleasure, this groovy thing where students just get to read books they want. I love hooking kids up with books they didn’t know they were going to adore. I love seeing a book get passed student to student and sometimes beyond (once, one of the track coaches broke down and read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian because all the kids were talking about it).
Sure, discussions don’t always go great. Students rarely enjoy being forced to read. But every semester, I’m up for that challenge.
I really miss that.
I found out last week, via a comment on Goodreads, that the amazing teacher with whom I did my practicum almost ten years ago is retiring. I can’t even begin to talk about her influence on me, on her students, and her school. She’s leaving an amazing legacy. There’s a lot of crap that comes with teaching, but I never worried about my impact on the world at the end of the day. I’m pretty sure that helping students love to read, and helping students who might otherwise struggle or quit get a college education? I’m pretty sure that’s a great thing.
I’m not sure what my legacy is as an advisor. It’s super early, so I know this might change. I just don’t know if an advisor is a life changer in the same way a teacher can be. Maybe this is a selfish issue, but it’s been on my mind.
5. Get in line.
I’m at the bottom of the totem pole at work. I know that at some point, I may be able to do some teaching. I may be able to participate in some important committees that focus on topics that matter to me, and that I can contribute to. But I’m going to have to get in line. And I hate waiting. At meetings with Orientation folks, or TRiO folks, I’ve thought, I should be doing that. I could help with that. I have something to add to that. Having to wait my turn is really hard. I imagine a LOT of post-ac people struggle with starting back at the bottom of the pile. I taught for 9 years and cultivated a pretty stellar rep in my dept. I was consulted for important things. I felt really valued. I’m going to have to wait for that, and at times, that is hard for me to sit with.
* * *
At this point, I’m not sure how much of this is due to my continuing adjustment, or if any of these will truly be dealbreakers. Part of it is that I hate not knowing, and I really just wish I loved every aspect of this work so I could be confident and certain that I’ll be here forever. It really would be so much better if I could totally love this job, because the benefits and flexibility are awesome. I mean, high school teaching isn’t magical and perfect. It’s heaped with bureaucratic nonsense, intense pressures, and it would be more work for similar or less money, for sure. (There are reasons I didn’t go into HS teaching.) It would be much better if I could find ways to fulfill this longing here.
For now, I have some plans. I’m joining some committees, I don’t care if it’s presumptuous. I’ve made it very, very, very clear that I want to teach (I just have to hope a spot opens up for me next year). I’m bringing my books to my office. Every day I add a couple more to my bookshelves, so at least I can remember who I am and what I value, even if I’m not passing them out to students. I’m talking to other advisors about their transition and how they felt (unsurprisingly, others have felt the same way). And I’m getting my teaching license. Just in case.