Do Your Homework: Considering Teaching as a Career Path

I love teaching. I’ve been teaching at universities since my second year in UCF’s Creative Writing MFA program, a total of nine years. I’ve taught creative writing, English composition, professional writing, and other courses. I have taught in the classroom and online, and I’ve taught at two universities (including UCF).

Many people go from the MFA program into teaching. There are several reasons for this, and the most common reason is that there are more opportunities to teach as a grad student than there are opportunities for other roles. Teaching is not for everybody. The following are tips for choosing where to teach.

Do Your Research
This means reading the school’s website, looking up the instructors and professors, and taking a tour of campus. Find out what the culture is like. Will you fit in? What is the age of the typical student you might have in class? Are you comfortable teaching that age group?

Learn the Department’s Expectations
If you know anyone who works at the school, ask them about their experiences, positive and negative. What’s a typical day like for them? How many hours do they spend teaching and on other activities in a week? Do they grade in the evenings and on weekends? During which days and hours are they expected to answer email?

If you don’t know someone who works there, ask about expectations during an interview. What is a typical course load? Will you be teaching a variety of classes or multiple sections of one subject? What are the opportunities for advancement in the department? What are the policies on teaching at other universities? How many office hours do you need to hold per week? What are the expectations of your activities during office hours (are you expected to meet with students, grade, discuss pedagogy with colleagues, etc.)?

Also, ask what you’re expected to do aside from teaching. Are you expected to serve on and lead committees? Will you lead a student organization, plan events, manage a journal, or fundraise? Are you going to advise students, and, if so, how many students?

Last, what about research and publishing? If you are expected to do research, write, and publish, what’s the target? Are you provided with time to do that, or does this work happen when you’re at home? This is where you might want to consider how separate you want your writing career to be from your teaching career.

The MFA program taught me how to write while doing other things. In addition to taking the “Teaching Creative Writing” course, I earned a graduate certificate offered to TAs out of the faculty development department, and I attended workshops in teaching composition that were offered by the English Department. I took advantage of having a mentor, and, frankly, I now wish I had worked more closely with my mentor. If you have this opportunity, take it. Ask many questions.

I also recommend Coursera courses, which may be audited or paid for. Plenty of conferences focus on pedagogy, from AWP to FCEA and CCCC. The trick is to actually attend the panels and meet people, not just schmooze at the bar. Continuing education is a big part of staying current and motivated.

Last, you are not necessarily an expert on teaching because you’ve been a student for twenty years. Most of us are more focused on what we’re learning rather than on how the teachers are teaching. I took my most effective professors’ techniques and tried to adopt them in my own classes. This was a good start, but I learned from student feedback that I needed to incorporate assignment sheets, handouts, presentations, and activities that appealed to multiple learning styles. If the students get confused, try to figure out what you can do next time (or in the next class session) to lessen that confusion. During one of my first classes, I don’t think I ever used an assignment sheet–I wrote everything on the board. This wasn’t helpful for students who were visual learners. Nowadays, don’t be surprised if students take photos of the board rather than taking notes.

How many words per day can you handle? Reading student work, writing comments on it, reading for pleasure, reading for research, and doing your own writing can be draining. If you want to focus on a discipline other than writing for your teaching career, you may want to get certified in a different subject area. I had a mentor who said she could only process so many words in a day. What’s your limit? Will you have the energy to write?

The takeaway: Choose your career wisely. If you are teaching in grad school as an opportunity to earn money and gain experience, consider carefully if this is something you want to do or something you think you should do. Weigh your options. Explore various career paths. I didn’t realize how much I wanted to teach until I sat through an interview for something else. Now, don’t let one bad day scare you off, of course. Just remember that teaching isn’t for everyone, and it’s not the only option available to someone with an MFA.

I have found teaching to be rewarding. It was a natural path for me. Consider what will nurture you and your talent and if you’ll have the time and energy to write, which is probably what you want to do most after graduating with your MFA to begin with.

catherine-carson-photo

Catherine Carson graduated from UCF’s MFA program in 2007. She teaches writing in Winter Park, Florida. Her nonfiction and poetry has been published in Fantastic Floridas (Burrow Press), Gravel, and Referentials Magazine and has been featured in the podcast The Drunken Odyssey with John King. You can also catch her reading at There Will Be Words in Orlando. When she’s not teaching her three cats to high-five, she’s knitting.
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