New beginnings are exciting. They are also turbulent. Beginnings require other things to come to an end. I’ve thought a lot about this the past few weeks, because I’ve started a new job. This job is completely unrelated to fashion and teaching. With it comes excitement, meeting new people, learning new things, and also a pesky feeling of loss and sadness.
It’s ironic to feel this way. I never particularly aspired to be a teacher. It was something that seemingly happened to me – nothing that I had planned on doing. Yes, I am qualified to teach college. But the identity of being a professor was something that was quite difficult for me to take on.
I don’t have any formal training in pedagogy or social interaction. I have a master’s degree to curate costume and textile exhibitions, so I’m always observing how people learn and interact with exhibition and classroom spaces . . .These experiences affected me as an educator because I started teaching at 25. I was, for all intents and purposes, fresh out of the classroom. It was a VERY difficult transition to make, personally and professionally. I didn’t identify with being a teacher/professor, and was often times younger than my students.
Aside from the sheer terror of speaking in front of groups in an intelligent manner, teaching was difficult because of my age. It required me to be more of a mentor than a friend, which was something I didn’t consider myself to be! “Mentor” seems like a title for someone much older and more seasoned than myself. I hardly have my own life figured out, so it seemed ridiculous to see myself in this way.
For the first few years, every class meeting filled me with anxiety. I never felt prepared enough. I never felt knowledgeable enough. I never felt like I embodied what a good professor was. I would obsess about creating the perfect lectures and assignments, lose sleep over selecting readings, and miss meals to do grading.
I had a routine of getting through the tough times. I’d pour myself a cup of coffee, repeating a mantra: “One day, I will not have to be a teacher“. It helped to keep my sanity. I had set up an impossible ideal of what I should be, and felt trapped in a role I could never fill.
At a certain point, I threw away all my notions of what I should be. Instead, I tried to make my classes fun. I wanted my students to have permission to be everything I wasn’t allowing myself to be: fun, spontaneous, creative, inspired, interesting.
The results were unanimous. Having fun is the best way to learn.
I also learned a lot myself. To be a good teacher, you must be a good listener and observer. I always thought the perfect teacher had a secret file labeled: “the perfect thing to say at any given moment”. That advice just magically rolled off their tongues and inspired students to work to their full potential. Clearly, I had no file like this. So I just watched. When I saw something special, I learned to speak up. I had no magic wand, no hidden power. I’d just say: “That’s really good! Make MORE!!!!!!!!!!“
And then I would encourage them to interact with other students. I started to understand that I didn’t need to be everything to everyone. If another faculty member or student was better at illustrating a croquis or draping a garment, I should let them take over.
Slowly, I started to re-define what a good teacher is. Now, I see this as someone that listen and observes the talent in another person and encourages them to do more with it. A good teacher exposes students to new ideas, new media, and new ways of creating. A good teacher will give you work as a way to find new methods of self-expression.
A good teacher will give you a structure for success. This is learning the discipline of the course. But a good teacher will also show you how to be independent. The aim of teaching is for students to no longer need a teacher. The goal is for the students to realize they have all the skills and resources to be successful on their own.
In this way, my students were my teachers. They challenged the way I thought about and perceived the world. They showed me new ways to be creative. They helped me to realized that I better at teaching that I let myself believe.
Just as soon as I learned this lesson, life has taken me on another journey. So for now, this is my farewell to leading a classroom. It was amazing, frustrating, enlightening, and exhausting. I’m so grateful for every single person that I’ve met along the way.