Five Lessons from My First Year as a Lecturer

The university year is now over. The 2015 to 2016 academic year was my first full year as a lecturer; although I’ve done a lot of guest lecturing in the past, this year was my first gig where I got to see students week in, week out.

I mainly taught third year Fashion Marketing, helping them complete their final major project, but I also taught first years, had two personal tutees for pastoral care, and supervised three dissertations.

Here are five lessons I’ve learnt.

Most people just want you to see them

The greatest lesson I’ve learnt from this year of teaching is that most people want something very simple: for you to truly see them.

It’s easy to work somewhere, be in a relationship with someone, or spend time with friends without truly seeing them. To see someone means to see them for who they are as an individual, wholly and imperfectly; not as a reflection of you, or in relation to you, or as a daughter/brother/partner, or as a manager, or an employee, but as who they are.

My students, aged around 18 to 21, are used to classification. They’re used to being ‘so-and-so’s daughter’ or ‘an A grade student’ or ‘the talkative one’. They are used to being labelled as ‘millennial consumers’ or ‘undergraduate students’. They are used to being seen in relation to other people.

They are not used to being seen as individuals, wholly and imperfectly. Many of them wanted this, many were terrified, but all of them who could accept it improved in their work and personal confidence.

Being seen means someone validates you as an independent and individual being, unique but understandable. It helps you develop agency – the knowledge that you are able to, and responsible for, your own life. It also brings to the surface all those terrifying weaknesses that get erased when you’re seen as part of a general classification, whose identification is essential for moving onwards and upwards in life.

So, lesson 1: seeing people, aside from the classifications and relations you’ve given them, will help them develop agency (and probably scare them too).

Most people also just want you to listen

Listening comes a very close second to seeing. I love helping people, solving problems, helping them fulfil their potential. I learnt this year that you can’t do that unless you listen first.

Teachers of all kinds (including parents) are quick to impart knowledge, because they want to help, they think they can, and because they want to prevent suffering in their students.

Students will not listen to you if you don’t listen to them.

You can give the best advice in the world, but if you haven’t listened, fully and empathically to start with, it won’t sink in.

That’s because real listening isn’t about an exchange: it’s not, “I listen to you, then formulate advice based on your problems”. Listening is pure absorption. It’s taking everything that comes out of the other person and absorbing it, putting it away, accepting it. You can respond if you want to, but that’s not the purpose of listening.

I found many of my students wanted someone to be a sponge for their thoughts. They wanted to say something out loud so it didn’t have to rattle around in their heads anymore, frustrating them. They wanted someone to nod, and make noises, and not give any advice. After that, they were very receptive to advice and actioned it straight away.

I struggled immensely with ‘just’ listening, and it’s something I’ll continue to develop over my life as a tutor.

Lesson 2: listen to purely absorb, not to give advice.

Lots of stuff about Millennials is rubbish

In my first few months, I believed a lot of what marketers and business people say about Millennials; they’re prone to anxiety, narcissism, feelings of entitlement, lack of respect for authority, etc. They think they’re special snowflakes who need constant reassurance, etc. Aren’t they just so not like us? etc. etc.

Lots of stuff written about Millennials – from the perspective of this tutor who has spent hours with about 30 of them, seen them cry, laugh, panic, fuck up, save it all – is rubbish. No, it’s damaging.

They are a generation more connected than any before them. They have access to more information, are told more about themselves and catered to by more brands in very targeted ways than ever before. But the act of classifying them is turning them into these archetypal Millennials; it’s not some inherent feature they all share.

They’re told university is stressful, so they get stressed. They’re told they can do ‘anything they want’, so they’re paralysed by choice. They’re treated like fragile creatures, so they become fragile. They’re told they are consumers, so they see everything as an act of consumption

But as individuals, truly seen and listened to, they aren’t these things. I have seen them: they are strong, independent, complex people – just like every other generation. They are people, with a few more years of life to experience and a whole weight of statistical generational ‘evidence’ weighing them down.

Lesson 3: don’t treat people you are educating differently because someone collected data about them this one time; treat them as individuals.

Trust is a gift you can give to your students

My students are adults; they can vote, move house, get married, get a job and do all number of things without asking anyone’s permission. Yet we’re quick to treat those we’re educating – or managing – as ‘untrustworthy’.

We might not think they’re going to nick staplers out of the cupboard, but we might not trust them to get something finished in time – so we step in. Or we don’t trust them to present their work properly, so we over compensate our teaching and advice in this area.

Trust is a gift that every educator can give their students, and I see it as an essential gift for them to move their life onwards and upward.

Stephen Covey of ‘7 Habits’ fame talks about trust in his descriptions of delegation; ‘gopher’ delegation is the menial tasks given to workers and shouted instructions, which results in everyone being unhappy and either over- or under-worked. Sometimes this happens in education. It’s pointless. Students don’t learn nor do they feel as if they have agency in their learning, which means responsibility lands back on the educator.

Trusting someone to do the job (or complete the project) gives them agency. Covey outlines ways the work can be ‘framed’ to ensure as good a result as possible. But there will always be the first leap of faith; to trust your student.

I had a few phrases I used a lot this year, but one of the most-used was “I trust you to…”.

“I trust you to make the best decision”.

“I trust you to hand in on time”.

“I trust you”.

And I really did. They might not all accept this gift – they might not accept their own agency and ability – but without me freely giving it to them I would’ve been educating ‘gophers’, not humans.

Lesson 4: frame their projects to help them complete it, then take a leap of faith and trust them to do so.

Defensive practice is a waste of time

University education in the UK is subject to the whims of many different people and organisations. There are funding bodies, quality boards, frameworks, government policies, inspectors and student satisfaction surveys.

Because these whims are so apparent in university life, and because we’ve been sucked into the rhetoric of students-as-customers, people get fearful. Horror stories abound of tutors who’ve been sacked for swearing, or courses pulled for poor student satisfaction results. Folk get frightened of doing something ‘wrong’ in teaching, and so defensive practice begins.

Defensive practice is just as it sounds: practising your work on the defensive, the ‘just in case’, the risk-avoidance path, to avoid doing something ‘wrong’.

In education, and especially in creative education, this is a complete waste of time.

A creative worker who is risk-averse, fearful, prefers the status quo, won’t try new things and afraid of getting it ‘wrong’ will not be any good at their job. A human being who is afraid of change, and making mistakes, won’t be very good at being a happy human being.

Teaching is modelling behaviour. If I am on the defensive, my students will be too. They will think that defensive practice is normal, and they’ll take that with them into life and work, and they’ll be unhappy and rubbish.

Over the last year, I’ve seen examples of defensive practice in teaching and I have done everything I can to not do it. I model the behaviours I expect my students to have: passion, enthusiasm, sincerity, humour, dedication, determination and more. That modelling might including arguing, joking, playing devil’s advocate, being blunt, honesty, swearing, physical expression, and ‘poking with a stick’ (my phrase for when you’re trying to get something out of someone).

Historically, educators are often those who (along with artists) stand outside of social norms to present new challenges to the world, and help the world to understand these challenges. They poke things with sticks.

Lesson 5: avoid defensive practice if you want great students, and instead model the behaviour you expect them to have as they move onwards and upwards in life and work.

Over the last year I’ve had the honour and pleasure of teaching students about fashion marketing, but I’ve also had the joy of being changed and encouraged to grow by each of them.

Being an educator, whether you’re teaching 5 year olds, managing 50 year olds or anything in between, is a challenging, frustrating, exciting gift; I hope these lessons help you in your journey.

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