Thoughts on returning to teaching

Yesterday I taught all three of my courses for this semester. My first thought is that I haven’t forgotten how. Read on for more.

I am starting the semester feeling the most prepared I’ve ever been. Why?

I taught Discrete Math & Functional Programming last fall, while pregnant, and put all my materials on Canvas then. So not only is it is fresh in my mind, the only material prep I had to do was changing date-based names to topical names, and making a few adjustments to the learning goals and schedule in response to a departmental review of the course this summer. This was the easy prep and the one I got done first.

I taught Human-Computer Interaction my first semester at Whitman. I needed to import materials to Canvas, which is fine because I also needed to page in the structure of the course. I worked on a couple of rough spots from last time. I made a few adjustments to account for having half again as many students in the course (though probably not enough adjustments)

I am teaching Capstone for the first time, but I had lots of materials from Carleton’s capstone to build on. (Thanks, Amy!) Since projects are student-directed, there was only so much planning to do.

Last but far from least, our nanny started three weeks before the semester started, to give me some time to adjust and prepare. Even with a few vacation days and doctor appointments, I spent far more time at work this month than I normally do in August. And I have experienced the miraculous increase in productivity that many new parents report: I know my time at work is limited, so I want to get things done and go home.

I prepared so well that I had some downtime Tuesday and yesterday (and today?) – probably a first. On Tuesday, I went home early to spent an extra hour with my daughter while I still could. Yesterday, I started reading Lauren Smith Brody’s The Fifth TrimesterAlthough geared more towards business moms than academic moms, is is smart and funny.

In the second chapter, on the return to work, Brody recommends that we choose three rules to live by at any one time. Reading this helped clarify some commitments I had already made to myself.

First, “decide what’s sacred.” For me, that is leaving work at 5 pm. I was never good at this before, but now it is necessary to make sure we can eat dinner and get our daughter to bed on time. Despite the wonderful speeches, I regretted going to Convocation last fall because it started at 4:30 and went until 5:45. I told an Associate Dean yesterday that I am on strike from events after 5 p.m., after being told that we should “plan to attend” a reception after the afternoon faculty meeting.

One of my strategies is to “stop overproducing.” I have decided that scholarship is on the backburner during the academic term. I’ll do it when I have time and energy, but this semester (and probably spring too), class prep, grading, and time with students come first. At the same time, I fear I left too many assignments in my syllabi for how many students I have this semester – but more on that later. Related to this, I decided I am perfectly happy to work less than 40 hours/week if I can get my work done during that time. I doubt I will actually be able to work less than 40 hours/week, but I am not going to feel guilty about leaving work early when I feel done for the day or working fewer hours than I have in the past.

Finally, I have made plans to “prioritize food.” I am still breastfeeding, and I’m pumping at work. I figured out how to bring lunch to work with me so I can take a short lunch break and maximize my work time (I never got that before, but I get it now). As part of figuring out lunch, I realized it’s easy to also bring a yogurt or cottage cheese and fruit, along with the high-protein snack deliveries I started last fall while I was pregnant.

My biggest fear about returning to teaching is that grading will spiral out of control and take over my weekends, particularly given that all three of my courses are overenrolled.

In Discrete Math and Functional Programming, I have two strategies: groups and automation.

In the previous iteration of the course, I permitted students to work with a partner on weekly problem sets. This semester, I am going a step further to encourage it, although I am requiring that students change partners so they do not become too reliant on a single classmate for their understanding of the material. I am suggesting a strategy that worked well for some of my previous students: forming larger study groups of 3-6 in which partnerships can rotate. I am not requiring that students participate in these study groups, but I will provide some support for forming them.

The other strategy is automation. Last time I started experimenting with Gradescope for grading weekly problem sets and exams. This semester, I am going to use Gradescope for all exams and all weekly problem sets, including automated testing for programming problems. This should save a fair amount of paper-shuffling and transcription. (My records on Gradescope from last time also suggest some particular problems that I may not want to assign again because they were difficult to grade.)

In Human-Computer Interaction, my strategies are groups and rubrics. I already have several group assignments in my syllabus, but I will bump up the group sizes. If the group size was 2-3, this semester it will be strictly 3, or 3-4. If the group size was 3-4, it will be 4-5. Similarly, I had already created points allocations for all assignments, and detailed rubrics for a few. In revising my assignments, I created detailed rubrics for all of them. In my experience, grading to a rubric is much faster than writing comments to every individual assignment. I may decide later they are not the right rubrics, but at least they give me a place to start.

But to put things into perspective, the worst possible outcome is that I will spend some time grading on weekends. It would not be so bad to give my daughter some time alone with her daddy (though I’d rather be doing something more fun with that time – like maybe reading for my HCI class!)

My other biggest fear about returning to teaching is sleep. While I was pregnant last fall, I scheduled a nap right after lunch. Most days, I needed it. I’m no longer so tired by everyday tasks, but I am short on sleep.

I had already decided to schedule time for pumping after lunch, in hopes of anchoring it to a required daily event so I make a habit of it. After dozing off while pumping yesterday, I expanded the time I blocked out so I can take a short nap. Fortunately, I had no problem waking up to teach my classes at 11 a.m., 2:30 p.m., and 7:30 p.m.

Being at work until 9 p.m. was more of a problem. With my daughter waking at 3:30 a.m. and staying awake until 5 a.m., after several nights of disrupted sleep, I am noticably dragging today.

Fortunately, I scheduled the evening capstone meetings for every other week. As I told my students last night, the first meeting is the only one I will really teach; after that, students will be presenting their work in progress.

We have also decided to start sleep training based on the ideas in The Happy Sleeper by Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright, a recommendation from the Academic Mamas group on Facebook. It’s been four weeks since we started with our nanny, Labor Day weekend is coming up (I don’t get the day off, but my husband does), and what we didn’t change because it was working is no clearly longer working.

My other other biggest fear about returning to teaching? Chalk. I’ve always taught in rooms with whiteboards. I hated the slippery feeling of chalk. Since I overenrolled my courses this semester, they no longer fit in the rooms I had originally reserved, and the new rooms had chalkboards. I spent a surprising amount of time worrying about this over the summer and found some really nice chalk holders. But halfway through my first class yesterday, I found myself picking up the bare chalk sticks without even flinching.



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