Monday, 14 May 2012

Tutoring and teaching Plath

The academic semester is almost over for undergrad students. The libraries are filled with stressed looks, sighs of exasperation and furrowed brows over late night coffees from the Klix machine. Students are gearing up for their end of year examinations and have left the classrooms far behind. It's interesting to be at the other end of the spectrum now. The classroom is no longer a place where I learn, but somewhere where I teach. Well - this is what I thought originally prior to embarking on tutoring. Little did I know, I had a LOT to learn.

Being an Instructor, Tutor, TA... It's a huge challenge. And most often than not, we PG students are left to fend for ourselves in this area. Last year I completed an in-house training course on "how to teach" but, as I quickly learned, the actuality of the situation is much more complicated than meets the eye. As always, The Thesis Whisperer has quite a few blog-posts on being a University tutor. I also found The Teaching Tom Tom to be an interesting and thought-provoking resource for would-be tutors, but really, no-one can prepare you for tutoring. I had discussed methods of teaching with some of my friends who teach at primary and secondary level, but I think that there is a difference between school teaching and college teaching. For one, the students at college (theoretically) want to be there. Also, at college, the age range of pupils can vary greatly. So, before I started tutoring, I asked myself: what do I think the students want to gain from my classes? And secondly - what do I want to present and gain from these classes? As a result, I came up with an action plan of sorts:

  • Create a good classroom atmosphere - i.e. Don't stand at the front of the room preaching to students. Sit down and make eye contact with everyone, smile and sent out positive body language.
  • Involve everyone. I felt this was really important having been in tutorials as a student where we spent one hour in awkward silence because the tutor didn't open the room for discussion. I wanted to make sure that everyone had some kind of input in the class, no matter how small.
  • PLAN. For every class, I made a handout which served as a guideline of how the session would run. We could deviate from the points made in the handout but it just meant that if discussion ever felt silent, we could move on to the next "order of business."
  • No fear! This goes both ways: no fear for the students and no fear from me. Any piece of poetry, film, novel or play we discussed (and was on the syllabus), I made sure to photocopy extra copies and bring them with me. So if a student hadn't read a poem, having the photocopy there in class allowed them to still be involved in the discussion. We watched select parts of a DVD on my laptop to illustrate different points, for example. And having photocopies meant that I could get the students to read out a poem or a section from a play, thereby involving them in the seminar and grabbing the attention of fellow students.

So, these points essentially became my teaching manifesto. And so far, they served me well. The classes I taught featured a varied age range, varied amounts of males and females (one seminar entirely female, and one predominately male for example) and week-to-week the size of the groups changed constantly. I feel my planning and attitude to teaching allowed me to cope with the unexpected: e.g. the week before Easter break, just two males turned up for my class on Ted Hughes. This could have been awkward but in fact, it turned out to be one of the more enjoyable sessions as the three of us were able to unpick the poems in detail, looking at imagery, literature history and typical themes found in Hughes.

I was lucky enough to spend two weeks teaching Plath which was a dream come true. I really wanted to teach Plath well and I think to some degree I succeeded. I wanted to perplex my students and shatter any illusions they had about Plath. The all-female class had some great discussions - particularly because the age ranged was varied. Many of the mature students had wonderfully insightful comments to make about Plath's maternal poems, whereas the younger females were more attracted to the fiery pieces of 1962. Teaching males about Plath was a very interesting experience also. I asked all of the students to read the poems aloud,and it was particularly interesting to hear males read 'Stings', 'Lady Lazarus' and 'Edge' aloud. Personally, I was interested to learn how male readers interpret Plath and perhaps I was just lucky to be teaching male students who had very keen observational skills, because some of the comments and conversations about Plath and the holocaust/WW2 were so interesting and refreshing.

All in all, my teaching experience was an overwhelmingly positive experience. I enjoyed leading a class, I enjoyed doing the prep-work beforehand and although marking essays is widely thought of as tedious; I enjoyed reading most papers, writing comments constructively critiquing the work. Being a college instructor/tutor is challenging, worrying and stressful - but those few moments where you can see a student truly connecting with a text make it all worthwhile. I only hope that I can continue to have the opportunity to teach and grow as a teacher.

As always, I'm interested to hear other stories about tutoring: good and bad!


Rosemary said...

I would love to be your studrnt Maeve

iamyoursforever said...

nice xx :))

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Michelle Anne said...

An excellent tutor like you can really make learning effective and fun. Exams are usually hard so most children go to SAT prep queens and other tutoring services so they can learn. Your setting is very similar and the classroom atmosphere would really help.