Friday 23 September 2011

A Late-Night Thought

As I wait for my husband to finish his nightcap cup of coffee, a thought popped into my head.

About this time of year in 2003, I was a PhD student in St Louis, MO. About six weeks on from irreparably ruining my chances of progressing by making the rookie error of defending myself from assaults by my supervisor, he was doing his best to break us all. One wonders who told him that grad school was meant to be like boot camp complete with drill sergeant shouting 24-7.

In one particular dissection of my many failings, he told me that I didn't have what it took to become an assistant professor like him and that I wasn't up to tenure track. I remember saying that I didn't want to become a professor - that I had no desire to teach and that having seen how miserable he and his wife were as assistant professors I felt a career of research in a museum was the best option.

I am so thankful that it was a knee-jerk defensive remark on my part. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I'd gone into teaching after my MRes and avoided the six really shitty years between August 2003 and August 2009. But I know I will never have a manager as awful as my PhD supervisor. I got some great university lecturing experience out of it. I may not have been such a strong candidate without that, showing up for my interview with no teaching qualification and very little time teaching under-18s.

I'm suffering a little existential crisis at the moment, especially in reference to the A-Level classes. I've taught A2 for two years and AS for a year. I know this stuff. I've passed my PGCE. I got a Grade 1 at my last observation. But lately I'm coming into the staffroom after one of these sessions and sitting there dazed, wondering if I can still do it. I've got some really bright students, genuinely destined for medical/vet school, and the weight of their expectations feels heavy on my shoulders.

But if I can't hack it, then I will prove that bastard right. And I can't have that.


  1. There are some ridiculously bad teachers in the world but you're clearly not one of them. This chump who supervised your Phd obviously never felt that weight. Or if he did, he couldn't hack it and made it your problem. Good luck with tomorrow...

  2. You can hack it. Teaching is relentless, learning is hard. Everyone feels the burden of responsibility - and you won't let anyone down. Good luck!

  3. If you don't feel challenged by your able students, either you're not listening to them or you've not given them the skills to think for themselves.

    We're not supposed to have all the answers, even though they often assume we do. Like parenthood, you know you're getting things right when they ask a question you're not sure how to answer or, even better/worse, point out where you're wrong. As teenagers, of course, they haven't learned that nobody is infallible yet - and even whent hey do learn it, they won't include *themselves* in the 'fallible' category for some time yet.

    It sounds like you made a good choice, when seen through the lens of hindsight - even if the years in between were rough. Assistant professor he may have been, but he sounds like a lousy human being. Whether you can 'hack' the questions from your top-end students or not, you can't *prove* right a malicious comment. The worst case scenario is that he guessed something which may or may not apply. He would no more be entitled to gloat if you fail than he would to feel pride at your success - a far more likely result, and one based on your competence, hard work and ability.

  4. Thanks all of you for the supportive comments (and to those who didn't comment on here for the e-mails and Twitter DMs). I've still got a massive amount of self-doubt about my teaching ability, but reading through the first batch of essays from the AS and A2 class has reassured me that they're not so bright I can't handle them at the moment...


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