Lessons Learned : A Reflection on Year 1

I haven’t posted on this blog in awhile.  I think part of what has stopped me is what often stops me in my pursuits, academic and otherwise: the thought that what I have to contribute just isn’t __________ enough  (in this case, profound enough).  This lingering insecurity is something that pervades a lot of these blog posts (and incidentally, something that I’ve found to be somewhat common among women academics of color in general, but as I don’t have references at hand, I’m not sure that I can throw that statement in more than incidentally–evidence, evidence, evidence). So maybe it was that, or maybe, it was just the fact that life got really busy.

Either way, I have to remind myself that although I publicize these blog posts via social media, really they’re meant as a space for professional reflection, a luxury that should be a habit of mind as an educator.  So, as I’m about to embark on my second year of this Assistant Professor journey, I figured it was time for reflection on my first year.

Things I’ve learned from my first year as an assistant professor:

1. Be willing to contribute, but learn to protect your time

My senior colleagues are big on helping me with this one.  I’m extremely fortunate to be in a department where my colleagues want me to be successful in the tenure process. They appreciate what I contribute, but also don’t want me to burn out on service opportunities.  I need those constant reminders to serve, but not volunteer for every opportunity that sounds interesting lest I burn myself out and/or take away from thinking and writing.  They’ve helped me see the value in protecting and valuing my time.

2. Be available to students, but learn to protect your time

Even harder than #1 is the balance between accessibility and 24-hour on-call roadside assistance.  There are a lot of ways students can get in touch with me.  On my syllabus, I not only list office hours, office phone, and e-mail but also my cell phone and my twitter handle (@profhsieh), both of which are almost instantaneous ways to reach me.  I’ve had to learn to put my phone on silent when I’m going to bed and to remind myself that I’m teaching professionalism as well as pedagogy.  It’s an ever evolving balance.

3. There’s always more to do, so learn to protect your time (are we sensing a theme here?)

I’m a workaholic.  And since my line of work is heavily integrated with technology, reading and writing, in some ways, I’m almost always working.  But, nearing the end of summer, after working through the entire “break,” teaching a new prep during summer school and beginning data analysis on a new study, I realized that if I didn’t take a break, I wouldn’t make it through my second year.  So, I took one AND I’m working on setting limits.  My resolve is already being tested (particularly given the fact that I synced my work e-mail with my iPhone recently and that the  new semester is about to begin), but when I feel my stress level rising, I’m trying hard to step away from the keyboard.

4. All your colleagues are really smart. It’s really not productive to compare yourself to them

If you follow this blog, you know that I compare myself to pretty much everyone all the time.  And, if you do that long enough, you get good at seeing how they’re better than you at something.  But seriously, that’s not productive.  I know that I’m innovative and that I am insightful about content area literacy.  Am I the most innovative assistant professor out there? Or the smartest academic studying content area literacy? Probably not. But it’s really not about being the smartest or best all the time.  It’s about making a contribution to a field of study and my contribution is my unique contribution. I’m hoping this year, I can spend more time contributing and less time comparing.  Probably best for everyone that way.

5. No, people don’t know who you are and even if they did, they probably wouldn’t care

So, I find myself, literally, on a daily basis, asking about SOMEONE, “Don’t these people know who I am?” It could be some district person who sent a snarky e-mail or a student who doesn’t really understand how address a professor in a professional manner or it could be someone at my son’s elementary school trying to explain to me a pedagogical concept that they really don’t know anything about and that I’ve actually taught about and applied in schools. It doesn’t matter the context, what matters is that these people really don’t know who I am, and if they did (or if they actually do), it probably doesn’t mean a darn thing.  So, instead of fuming over the lack of respect that I feel that I’ve earned (not through my rank, experiences or my education, but simply because I try every day to treat everyone and everything respectfully, not knowing what others are going through and would like to expect the same), I just let it go.  I choose kindness.

6. It’s important to remember why you got into this business

For me, this goes with #5 a bit.  I didn’t become an assistant professor of education for the money (anyone in this field knows that.  I made more as a teacher and teachers don’t make a whole lot) or for the respect that the title brings (because clearly I’d be out by now given the daily diatribe described in #5).  I became an assistant professor because fundamentally, I wanted to make a more widespread difference than that which I could make within the four walls of my classroom.  Don’t get me wrong.  Teaching makes a huge difference and I’m SO thankful each day for the 10+ years I spent in the classroom and each and every one of my middle school students, but I wanted to spread that difference to a new generation of teachers.  I wanted to champion collaboration between teachers and researchers. I wanted to write relevant research that made a difference for teachers’ practice. And I wanted to model reflecting deeply as a part of professional identity.  I haven’t done all of that yet, in my first year, but it’s important to remind myself as I’m entering my second year why I left my community, a job I loved and my dearest friends.  It’s easy to get side tracked by the minutia and discouraged by the slow change in the academy, but I’ve got to keep focused. Eyes on the prize.

7. Things are often harder in your mind than they are in reality, but sometimes they actually are just really hard

There’s nothing like academia to make you question yourself, over and over and over again, leading to lots of inaction as you stay locked up in the dungeon of your mind.  It’s a beautiful, terrible place, the academic mind.  But, what I’ve learned is that most of the time (roughly 4/5 times), I either make things harder than they are for myself through my own jedi mind trickery or I actually think that things are way harder than they end up being.  Sure, there is that other 20% of the time when things are actually as hard or harder than I think they’ll be, but no one said that this was going to be an easy road anyways.  I don’t need to make it harder on myself.

8.  My son is only 7 once and everyday of his life is a precious gift

This is probably one of the most important things I’ve learned this year.  I’m a perfectionist, as a mother and an academic, and I’ve read myriad perspectives on the work-motherhood balance, from both within academia and outside of it (I actually could site those folks, but actually this point isn’t about my journey as an academic mother). Realizing the profound privilege of being my son’s mother was not really from any of these articles, however.  It came through nearly losing my 7-year old nephew in Sandy Hook on December 14.  A lot of this blog has turned out to be reflections on loss as an educator and a mother.  My losses have taught me both the importance of my professional work AND the importance of my mothering. But most of all, they’ve taught me to treasure a mostly awesome and lovable, but sometimes grumpy and sarcastic, 7 going on 17-year old, because he’s my precious baby boy.

9. While you want to concentrate on your strengths, it’s important to develop your areas of weakness

I’m a teacher first and foremost, and I’ll always be a teacher. But if I only focus on my teaching, I can’t be successful on the tenure track. I’m also a natural volunteer.  I’m happy to lend my contributions to any committee.  But, as noted earlier, it’s also not just about service.  You can’t join the game if you don’t face the realities of the game.  I mean, I could argue the game, but really, at this point, I wouldn’t win.  So, I’ve had to sit down and write, even though it’s a WAY slower (and often tougher) process than teaching and serving (for me at least). Practice, practice, practice and persistence.  I know I’ve got to keep pushing myself to grow.

10.It gets better

I’m really excited about my second year. I am blessed to have no new preps in the fall and am working on some great projects/ initiatives.  I’ve got one study going and may have two more on the horizon this semester.  In a week, I meet my next set of new students.  In a little over a month, I move into a new house. Tomorrow, my son starts a new school.  It wasn’t an easy first year, but it was a productive first year, one that taught me so much about who I am and what the life and times of an assistant professor can really be like.

3 thoughts on “Lessons Learned : A Reflection on Year 1

  1. Loved this post, Professor Hsieh! Even as a student and future teacher, I can relate. Thank you for sharing and I promise not to bug you too much this year. 😉

  2. Hi Betina! Congratulations on your new post! It is great to hear that you are working with teachers. I just heard also about your recently published article about professional identity. I am still working with CAL:BLAST (we are in our third and final year) and would love to share it with a small group of teachers who are conducting teacher research.

    Please let me know if I may share it, and if so, where I can find it 🙂

    All the best,


  3. Hi Maureen!
    Thanks for checking in. I was recently just thinking about CAL:BLAST and wondering how the work is going. Such an amazing team you all are–I miss working in that form of collaboration. Of course, you may share my article. It is “in the pipeline” as they say, so I’m not sure about the publication date. I’ll send you the final draft version via e-mail so you can see if it’s useful for your work 🙂


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