4 Surprising Things Teaching Taught Me

I remember worrying my first day in the classroom about whether I was going to be able to teach anyone anything at all. I worried whether I was teaching the right things and whether students would leave my classes prepared.

It’s strange, looking back, that I never considered how teaching might change me. Often, as professionals preoccupied with learning objectives and educational outcomes, our focus is outward, on the impact we should have on other people, yet the impact our students have on us is just as lasting.

Here are four surprising things teaching taught me.

1. Small talk isn’t as complicated, or unimportant, as you introverts think.

Photo by Christiann Koepke on Unsplash

I have been shy my whole life. Starting a conversation with someone I didn’t know was painful. I just couldn’t figure out how other people knew what to say. Like many introverts, small talk felt senseless, wasteful. Why would I want to talk to this stranger about the weather or their job? Who cares?

What I didn’t think about is that small talk shows you care on a very basic level. When you engage someone in small talk, you’re trying to make them more comfortable by showing you are not a threat.

When I first started teaching, I avoided small talk. I didn’t think it was my job to deal with students’ personal lives or to share mine, and, to be fair, the line between students and teacher was fuzzy those first few years, many of my students actually being older than I was.

Over time, I came to realize how many students are very uncomfortable in the classroom. Perhaps this is more common at the sort of open-enrollment institutions I’ve spent most of my career at, where the majority of students are first-generation students, often with imperfect academic records, but I remember a fair number of freshmen in university classrooms who felt equally uncertain of their new surroundings.

There are many excellent guides to improve your small talk game, but I began learning by following up on brief business-related conversations: “How was that job interview last week, the one you had to miss class for?” “Have you heard back about the scholarship I wrote that recommendation for?” Somehow, it felt more meaningful to start there, with a conversation that had a purpose (ex: to communicate that a class meeting would be missed, to request a recommendation be written).

Never would I have expected the change this created in the classroom. When I engaged in small talk with students, they became more comfortable with me, which led to more engagement during class discussions. Who’d have thought? I would learn what students read, watched, or played in their spare time; sometimes we had interests in common, sometimes not, but it became easier to relate subject matter to their interests and this sometimes shaped the topics I assigned for students to write about.

The most surprising thing is that small talk has become much easier outside the classroom as well. I’ve even made a few friends around my apartment complex simply by talking about, of all things, the weather. 🙄

2. The trick to overcoming anxiety about public speaking is to make your livelihood dependent on it.

Photo by Kane Reinholdtsen on Unsplash

I’m half-kidding. But yeah, like 75% of Americans, I used to be terrified of speaking in front of an audience. I failed my fair share of playing tests through middle and high school orchestra because I couldn’t keep my hands from shaking.

At first, I did feel anxious before teaching every class, worrying I’d mess up, or I’d forget something, or I’d do something embarrassing. But the more time I spent in front of the class, the more I relaxed. I remember one afternoon about three weeks into my first term when I released my students and suddenly realized I hadn’t been nervous before class. What was different? Not much. I knew the students, the class was going well, and I was slowly becoming a little more comfortable in my own skin.

I won’t lie and say I never got nervous again. For years, I’d be anxious the first few days of class, or the first term at a new school, or the first week of a course I’d never taught before. And I’ve had coworkers for whom that anxiety returns every semester to haunt them despite having taught for decades. But for me, I grew less and less self-conscious with experience, and like making small talk, this has carried over into other parts of my life.

Often, we perceive anxiety as being bad. It creates stress. It makes us uncomfortable. It upsets our stomachs. But a professor once advised me that anxiety isn’t all bad. That nervousness shows that you care about what you’re doing, and that’s a good thing as long as you can keep it in check.

One piece of advice I will pass on is that embarrassing things will happen. It’s inevitable. I once barely missed vomiting on a student when I unwisely decided to push through a stomach virus instead of leaving early. Many times I’ve arrived in class only to realize I left my notes/textbook/student papers/you-name-it in my office. Occasionally I’ve tried to math in front of a class, which has never ended well.

The thing is, if you don’t take these moments too seriously, your students won’t either. They might tease you, but some gentle ribbing back can set things aright because as much antipathy as you might feel toward one another when you hand back grades, your students do realize you’re human. They often have more compassion than you’d expect, especially if you treat them with compassion and respect as well.

3. I didn’t know as much grammar as I thought until I had to teach it.

We mostly learn grammar intuitively, by interacting with others who use language in specific patterns we can mimic. This is known as language acquisition. Even the most “correct” speakers often learn a few non-standard grammar patterns because spoken and written English have different rules (which is totally not effin’ confusing, William Bullokar). Regardless, since most of us know grammar without knowing why the rules are what they are (or even what the rules are called), it can be a real struggle to teach grammar to someone.

When I taught grammar (which I sometimes don’t do outside of context because it’s not always that effective), I began to realize how much I relied on my intuitive rather than formal knowledge. When I started, I couldn’t even name all the parts of speech. (I know some of you can’t either. You’re welcome.) I would pore over the rules so I could impart them to my students. Like I said, endless PowerPoints, worksheets, and mind-numbing exercises did very little to improve my students’ grammar, but it polished up mine nicely.

4. Compassion fatigue is real and problematic.

Photo by Paulo Rodrigues on Unsplash

Lots of students have sob stories. As every teacher knows, midterms and finals are extremely deadly seasons for grandparents, car batteries, and laptops.

The thing is, shit does happen. It happens in our lives and it happens in our students’ lives. Usually, there’s little I can do for them when something goes seriously wrong. I’ve lain awake more than a few nights worrying about students facing homelessness, illness, sick family, or violence, and I know I’m definitely not alone in that.

It ate me up the first few years. Most of the time, schools I worked for had zero non-academic resources for students. Eventually, the high number of students in some form of need coupled with long hours and many, many overloads hardened me to the extent that when a student wrote in his journal, “If I don’t pass this class I’ll end up back on the streets of Miami dead like my brother and cousin,” the words barely registered. It was only at the end of the year as I threw out old papers–once I could catch my breath and long after he failed–that they hit me, hard. Had I told him about the tutoring center? Had I required him to attend tutoring? Had I contacted his coach or academic advisor? Had I required him to revise a failed draft? to submit an outline first? to conference with me?

No. I had done nothing specific for him, just the general class-wide reminders that fall on deaf (or sleeping) ears.

Is it my fault he failed? Absolutely not. There were a great many people and things that failed him long before he arrived in my class. Could I have made a substantial difference? Honestly, probably not. Mine was not the only course he was failing, so even if he’d passed mine, he would have lost his scholarship unless he could pass his others, too.


The but always hangs there. Like anxiety, the but indicates that you care. However, being an effective human being means taking care of yourself. Sometimes that means learning to set boundaries with students. Other times it means accepting what you can do and doing that to your best ability rather than trying to do more than is practical. It means celebrating the times you do get to make a difference, and allowing yourself time to grieve when things don’t turn out the way you wish they would.

Self-care is not an indulgence, but the set of healthy practices that enable you to make the difference it is in your power to make.

The Upshot

I never decided to become a teacher. In fact, for a while it was something I tried to escape, and I’m not sure it’s something I intend to do forever. There are things I really find fulfilling about teaching, and there are things (grading, administrators who have never taught, purposeful undermining of the humanities) that I hate, but whether I retire from a teaching post or it is just one phase in my life, my time as a teacher has enriched my character and my mind in ways I never would have imagined.

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