How teaching changed my life

Lucia Rotheray, based in Switzerland, reflects on the significant personal growth and satisfaction she has experienced through pursuing a career involving teaching. The piece was first published on her site.


For many academics, teaching is something we’re made to do in order to pursue our dreams of research. We’ve all heard (or been) people complaining about how preparing lectures or exams or holding office hours is taking up time in our already busy schedule.

But while it might not have been our main career goal, teaching does become a rewarding part of a difficult job for many academics. In a twitter poll I posted through @realscientists, I was pleasantly surprised to see that 54.5% of respondents enjoyed teaching and another 23.7% wanted an opportunity to teach – meaning that only 21.8% actually felt negatively about it overall!

I started teaching a few years before I gave my first maths lecture, and I’ve tried all sorts from music classes for kids to business English for employees to undergraduate maths lectures. All of these experiences come with their stuggles and stresses (except maybe music for kids, that’s just cute) but they all also taught me a lot both professionally and personally. Today I’d like to share some of the best things that have come out of teaching for me, and maybe inspire some of the teaching-weary to take a new look at this aspect of academic work!

It taught me how to take charge of a situation

The perfect class of students who are all motivated, helpful and focussed….probably doesn’t exist. When we teach we have to learn to deal (in our own ways) with people who are unfocussed, distracting or combative. We have to get comfortable being in charge of a room and having some authority, even over people who would have authority over us in other situations (for example when we teach people who are older, more professionally experienced or from a “higher” social class).

This experience has changed the way I view myself and given me a kind of confidence I could never have learned from a book or theoretical course.

It taught me communication skills I can use in everyday life

As a teacher or tutor it is important to recognise students’ individual strengths and work out how to communicate the same ideas to a variety of people. This has taught me how to be more patient and try to see the strengths and values of different people I interact with.

The sensitivity training of CELTA and the experience of helping students through stress and exam nerves has also made me more comfortable, calm and hopefully patient when talking to people about difficult topics.

Teaching English and German as second languages has also made me more aware of how I speak and how I can modify my language to communicate with people at different stages of learning. This can be difficult, but it also encourages creativity and trying new ways to express myself.

It improved my language skills

The day I taught my first class in German was the day I realised I was definitely not fluent. But of course I had no choice but to keep going, and the experience of teaching provided both motivation and practice to help me improve my language skills. Encouraging the students to (politely!) correct my spelling and grammar also provided a way to get them talking to me more in class: win-win!

It taught me how much I value human connection

For a long time I thought of myself as a loner, an introvert, a people-hater. Teaching has taught me that this is not the case. The part of my job which involves engaging with and helping people is the part I enjoy the most, even though it is time consuming and sometimes draining. Now as I look for my first post-PhD job I know that I want in-person engagement to be a big part of it, so that even when I’m working hard I know I will feel rewarded and nurtured by the people I work with and for.

Let’s be clear: I’m not claiming that I am now a perfect person. But I am better at accessing my calm, open, engaged side and this has postively affected my life beyond the classroom.

Notes

My teaching experience includes private tutoring for sciences, languages and music, language classes for teens and adults and lecturing and tutoring maths at undergraduate level. They all feed into the above discussion, but lecturing and tutoring have dominated my experience.

CELTA is a training course for English teachers which is regulated by Cambridge University and runs all over the world. I took it in 2015.

by Lucia Rotheray, 8 July 2021

Edelweiss, Zermatt (Pixabay, Creative Commons)