The start of the school year reminds me of one thing: I am young.
Well, not really. But at least in terms of professionals teaching university classes at my particular institution, in my particular department, I am a baby.
I frequently get asked if I’m a student, and sometimes my students forget that I am, in fact, their instructor. It does afford me a different relationship with them than, say, my 40-year-old colleagues who are greying and haven’t sat in the classroom in fifteen years.
But I become acutely aware of this every time I step foot into my 300-level composition class. I have to start this by saying that it’s absolutely my favorite class to teach. I have a blast doing it because I teach using discourse community theories with a strong focus on bolstering reflection and metacognition. In short, I get to geek out.
And that geeking out about my academic interests helps because I’m pretty close in age to these students–who have to have a certain number of completed credit hours (which usually puts them at junior-level status). And at an institution where there are many nontraditional students and many students who simply take longer than the “typical” four years to complete a degree, this means that I could be the same age and even younger than the majority of my students in these classes.
Experience has taught me that owning my youth is a lot better for me as an instructor than denying it. I embrace the fact that I am close in age to them, that it wasn’t so long ago I was in their shoes. I share those stories. I center my teaching on what I liked as a student. For the most part, I think this works.
Every once in a while, however, I’m reminded of the dangers: When does owning your accomplishments and credentials cross into bragging?
I’ll admit that I become a little defensive when others around me think I’m a student. Even the poor cable guy installing my new cable box over the summer made the “mistake” if I was ready for classes to begin and what I was studying. My gut reaction is usually to respond–sometimes a bite tritely–that I have a master’s degree.
When I introduce myself to students, I share my academic accomplishments. I want the individuals sitting in the classroom with me to feel comfortable in my authority of the subject matter, my dedication to learning, and, specifically, how eager I am to help them. I want them to learn and excel.
But can that be off-putting?
Imagine walking into a classroom and seeing a teacher you knew was definitely 20 years your junior. Upon introducing herself, she rattles on about how she got her bachelor’s degree three years ago and her master’s degree a year ago, expounds on her research interests and how those will connect to class discussions, continues on about her own scholarship and conference presentations.
In my imaginary scenario, the 45-year-old nontraditional student version of me already despises the 25-year-old real me.
Maybe I’m being overly hard on myself. I don’t think there are any students who have actually responded this way. In fact, many students have said they appreciate the reassurance that I am qualified to teach them, even if they have to see that through classroom interaction to really believe it.
The last thing I want to be is totally off-putting in the classroom. But being a young college instructor (particularly one who does not yet have a PhD) can be a particularly difficult tightrope walk where being too strict and too friendly can push you from the hip, active teacher who takes her job seriously but also gets along with students to being the too-serious or too-friendly teacher, neither of which garner much respect from students.
I love my students, and I recognize that this is something that, thankfully, will get easier rather than harder over the years, leading only to a new struggle of staying connected with students and their interests without seeming like I’m trying too hard. Until then, I’ll enjoy the opportunities I have to meet my students where they are and engage in their personal and professional interests, while reminding them that I’m friendly, but ultimately not their friend.