This past September I was hired as an adjunct faculty member at a local community college, teaching several classes in the veterinary science technology program. As someone notoriously unable to say “no,” I agreed to tackle the responsibility on my days off from clinical work.
I entered this endeavor thinking, “No big deal, I’ve got this.” I’m a serial multitasker and I enjoy keeping busy. How hard could it be?
It wasn’t too long before I realized just how much I had underestimated the commitment I had made. And now, just a few short weeks before final exams will be distributed and students will break for the summer, I find myself counting down the credit hours, willing the time to come where I can resume my “normal” bustling schedule rather than my current “way out of control, not a second to myself” situation.
Several years ago, I temporarily abandoned my plans to attend veterinary school and entertained the idea of working in biomedical research. To achieve my new goal, I enrolled in graduate school to pursue a master’s degree in biology.
One of the requirements for the program included teaching. Specifically, I was assigned to teach the laboratory portion of the anatomy and physiology course for non-biology majors.
I possessed no previous teaching experience and was terrified at the prospect of stepping over to the other side of the classroom. I wasn’t comfortable with public speaking, and wasn’t sure how I would explain complex biological terminology to individuals lacking a background in the subject.
My anxiety was only slightly tempered by the eager faces of my students, thirsty to learn about the intricacies of the human body. The learning curve was exceedingly steep, for both my students and myself, but if I’m being completely honest, the pressure I placed on myself far exceeded anything generated by the co-eds I was in charge of for a few hours, twice a week
Especially during those initial weeks of my first semester, I stumbled and made mistakes and faltered more times than I’d like to admit. But I also experienced some remarkable achievements watching students synthesize, memorize, and comprehend. It didn’t take long before the teaching bug bit me and I decided to pursue my PhD in biology, with a goal to focus a portion of my training on developing curriculum objective for more effectively teaching the biological sciences to non-majors.
I enrolled in a program and commenced my curriculum, only to nearly instantly discover my ideals didn’t mesh with those of the department I’d signed on to. It turns out people don’t pursue PhD degrees in neurobiology to teach science. They do it because they are passionate about research and writing papers and grants, and those were aspects of earning the degree I never could align with.
Veterinary medicine was thus my “fall back” plan. I gave up one dream to pursue another and placed teaching on the way back burner as I spent four years focusing entirely on memorizing minutia and resuming my role on the receiving side of the classroom.
Opportunities related to teaching arose here and there during my residency and my professional career as a medical oncologist working in private practice. In fact, I’d argue nearly every appointment I see represents a chance to educate pet owners about cancer. Though it has not been in the formal setting of a classroom, over the years I’ve trained dozens of veterinary students, interns, and residents, as well as motivated veterinary technicians and assistants.
When the chance arose to teach in the tech program this year, I willingly accepted, somehow failing to remember the struggle of my days of working as a newly minted lecturer.
Many years later, I find myself re-experiencing the same stumbling and faltering I did back in graduate school. Though I’m hypercritical of my capabilities (or lack thereof), I’m masochistically happy when I am attempting to make topics such as antibiotics and record-keeping enthralling, and when I am painfully, yet joyfully, spending my free time writing lectures, grading papers, and creating exams.
As a good friend of mine who is a kindergarten teacher says, “When you’re a teacher, you have to be ‘on’ all the time. There’s no taking a break.” I give her a ton of credit. I only need to be “on” for one day a week.
When I was on the other side of the classroom, I assumed breaks in curriculum were designed to relieve students from the stressors of their constant study. I now understand how essential the pauses are for maintaining sanity and mental health for teachers as well.
Those that can, do. Those that can do it better, teach.