What is Academic Life Like?

I saw this academic meme once (variations of which have been published in relation to other professions) that noted that the perception from the outside is different than the lived experience of those of us on the tenure track.  I’m actually pretty used to that, as prior to becoming an academic, I was a middle school teacher.

Some people outside of education think that K-12 teaching is all about working 7:30-3:30 and getting summers and holidays “off.”  It’s a nice “career” where you get to spend your day working with kids and spend time with your kids.  What could be better? (Actual educators know that teaching is NOT just about that you are in class with students, but also about lesson planning, preparation, assessment, working with parents, participating in professional development opportunities, working with colleagues, etc., involving long hours and often continuing through the summer.  All of this goes on behind the scenes, but is the real work of teaching.)

Similarly, faculty life in academia, with it’s flexible work structure, can be seen as an even more cushy profession.  I mean, I’m on an early career 3-year course release so I only teach 3 courses a semester (WAY less than the 5 that I used to teach at the middle school level).  I still get summers “off” and now, not only do I get to spend the summer with my kid, but I have time to volunteer at his school and be the treasurer for the PTA.  Why do I always seem so stressed on this blog?

Well, here’s why: I am a nerdy workaholic with poor boundaries that values teaching and is a team player.  So, finding balance isn’t easy.  What does that translate to?

1) I have to find (make?) the time necessary for academic work (i.e. reading, writing, research, presentations, etc.) and there’s a lot of time necessary for academic work.

I’ve been working on a manuscript for an article (that I just sent off today) for the past several months.  This process has involved extensive reading in the literature of my field, conceptualizing a study, getting it approved by an institutional research board, data collection (which actually has been taking place for a year and a half), data analysis in working with a research assistant, writing, revising (with the support of a research partner at another university), revising again, finding a journal that I think would be a good fit, editing and submission.  I’ve always been a good student so I thought, when pursuing an academic career, that this would be ideal.  I mean, they pay me to read and to write! Except that I put a TON of work into my teaching (see #2), leaving less time to read, write and think than I need, thus rendering the nerd in me somehow deeply unsatisfied at my academic publication progress.  I have a lot of data and some really interesting things to say (I think they’re interesting at least), but I need the time to stay current with reading in my field, opportunities to think deeply about the literature I read (which is hard when sometimes you don’t have a lot of time or opportunities to talk about your field of research with colleagues), time to analyze and write about my data, time to present and get feedback.  And, the most frustrating part, is that I need acceptance (which is completely out of my control) in order to validate the academic work that I’m doing.  So, while my fingers are crossed with this latest submission, almost 6 months + of work could result in a “we’ve chosen not to move forward with this article.” Sigh.

(And this is just the process on my single authored work.  My joint-authored submissions involve all of this and collaborative meetings to discuss and align voice in the papers–yet, that’s often regarded as “lesser” work depending on the order of my name in the article. Double sigh.)

2) Teaching 3 classes to the level that I expect takes a lot of time.

I’ve never been shy in identifying as a teacher.  While as a person, I am a research nerd, as a professional, I’ve always been a teacher, and the only reason I left my middle school classroom was to make a bigger impact on the profession that I love.  So, when opportunities for curricular revision come forth including the integration of new literacies & technologies, aligning coursework to research in our field (both pedagogically and in terms of curriculum), and integrating engaging activities that model strategies for my preservice teachers, of course, I’m going to take the extra time to embed them into my classes.  And, each semester that I teach a course, I revise it.  I do reuse some of my materials from semester to semester but rather than resting on my laurels from the previous semester, I use the time that I save from not reinventing the wheel to tweak and add to the course, often spending extensive time giving feedback and working with individual students each semester.  While I am teaching far fewer hours in front of the classroom, the depth and length of work I’m now assessing and the high stakes of teaching in a professional program mean that a lot of my week is spent on teaching.

3) Being a team player means various levels of service which all takes time too.

One of the aspects of academia that often is hidden to those on the outside is the idea of service; however, service is an important part of the review process, and fundamentally something that I believe in.  I serve on various departmental, program, college and university committees.  I’ve recently been on a couple of time-intensive grant committees and I serve my professional community both through speaking and consulting engagements throughout the state.  This is just the beginning of my career, so at some point, I expect greater commitments at the state and national level, likely meaning more travel and less space in my calendar, but providing opportunities to make the difference that I want to in my field.

4) In addition to all of this, there is “flexibility” so I can fill my schedule with family commitments. Oh wait, that also takes time.

Remember that part about bad boundary setting?  Well, as a former teacher, I know the importance of parent volunteers, particularly for public schools.  So, when asked to serve as PTA treasurer, I said sure and put my name on the ballot.  Then, when my son’s teacher needed someone to check off homework each week, I also committed to that.  I drop off my son at school every day (unless I’m out of town for work); I scale pinterest for ideas for his birthday party (why didn’t I just do Chuck E. Cheese?); I attend as many “during the day” school functions as I can–because I know that time is precious and it’s a privilege to have the flexibility in my schedule.  But, that same flexibility leads to the regular 16-hours a day that I work on several days a week when I’m not at his school.  I’m privileged not to miss those moments, but I’m exhausted.

So, every once in awhile I need days like today, where I did some academic reading, submitted my manuscript and aside from answering a few e-mails and responding to discussion board posts, I took the rest of today for myself.  I napped.  (In my 6th month of pregnancy, this is more of a requirement than an option yet it’s been WEEKS since I last napped because of the start of the semester) I took myself to lunch and bought myself new eyeliner.  Now, I’m writing this week’s blog (because Friday will be full of mom-commitments–homework check-off and Chinese New Year celebration at school) while junk television plays in the background.  Ah, balance. Today, the balance was in my favor, and my life seems amazing, but I know I have to keep working at it because there are more 16-hour days right around the corner.


The Things that Go Unspoken

95% of the time, I really love my job and my life.  And then there’s that other 5%…

Sometimes there are things that as an academic, particularly as an assistant professor who values her position and her career trajectory, are better left unsaid.  There are moments, as a mother, citizen and person that are better left off of social media.  But these “things,” these moments, are not ones that even I, with my Pollyanna-ish disposition and penchant for putting my nose to the grindstone and working hard through all the highs and lows, can dismiss with a smile.  They are the things that make me cry in the car on the way home or at night before I fall asleep.  They make me question why I give so much, why I care so much, why I “do too much.”

Sometimes they are large and unjust.  Sometimes they are tiny and based on miscommunication.  But, often they are a product of my strong commitments, tender heart, perfectionism and fear of being misjudged.

There aren’t many things I can do about these moments that go unspoken aside from acknowledging that they exist and doing my best not to cause them for others.  In spite of them, I need to keep being the change I wish to see.

But, man, they can be really hard moments.

Teacher Educators: Being the Change

A quote often attributed to Mahatma Ghandi urges us to be the change we wish to see in the world, and in my professional world, the change I’ve been wishing to see for a long time is a change in the discourse around teacher education.  I am a proud teacher educator.  Although it was a very difficult decision for me to leave my 8th grade classroom for the world of academia, what compelled me to do so was the opportunity to make a difference for generations of future educators through my position in a College of Education, working with pre-service teacher candidates who would then make a difference for generations of future students.

Recently, the Federal Department of Education proposed new federal guidelines for teacher preparation program accountability.  These new guidelines included narrow accountability measures and “institutional report cards”  that are likely to punish innovation in teacher education, with projected impact to fall hardest on institutions serving future teachers (and communities) of color and candidates seeking to teach in high needs fields.  The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) issued a 38-page response to these new accountability measures on behalf of the 800-Teacher Preparation Programs it represents and urged members to submit comments during the response period which just closed this past Monday, February 2.  Now that the public review period is over, we are waiting for federal response, however, as we wait, I would urge my fellow teacher education colleagues to advocate in everyday ways in our classroom.  Here are just a few ways that I hope to continue to be the change I wish to see.

Modeling Strong Teaching Practice

Last night, after a class session that I didn’t think was my strongest, I had a student say to me, “That class was pretty amazing. I have so many notes and I took so much from it.” Then another said, “Yeah, if this class wasn’t so engaging, I’d totally be asleep right now.” Finally, a third said, “I just want to say that what you taught us about having objectives, I really appreciate that in this class, you actually have objectives for us to focus on so we know what we’re taking from each session.  I don’t see that in every class and it’s really helpful to see you using the ideas that you want us to use.  It’s important, even at this level, for us to have this type of modeling of practices in this classroom.”  It had been a close to an 18-hour day so their feedback was really gratifying.

I realized that even on days that I don’t think are my strongest, I’m modeling dispositions and enacting practices that I want students to see–dispositions like authenticity and flexibility, and practices like embedded opportunities for structured communication, interaction and collaboration (Think-Pair-Shares, Quickwrites, live tweeting–which has just started happening in lecture this semester [!], text idea exchanges, diagramming ideas on the board, structured discussions, etc.) which occur every lecture, in addition to the specific content-related strategies that are referenced and modeled for students. While I won’t feel like a champ after every lecture, at least I know that every class that I put together is based on strong pedagogical principles that will be something of value to my candidates and their future classrooms.

Giving Feedback to Support Development

Last night’s feedback was critical to helping me think about my own practice, but feedback more generally is a critical part of my role as a teacher educator.  Whether it is giving timely, thoughtful feedback on students’ assignments or addressing issues that arise in class professionally but personally, feedback is essential to the work that we do.

In talking about literacy development last night, one student mentioned that repeated practice is the key to success.  I gently reminded him that practice with feedback was actually what I saw as the key to growth, to which another student replied with a quote from his former mentor, “It’s not practice that makes perfect, it’s perfect practice that makes perfect.” And, we can only practice perfectly when we know what it is we’re doing that needs improvement.

Pursuing Professional Growth: Collaborative and Reflective

Sometimes I feel stuck in a rut and then I reach out to my communities or look for new resources, either via social media, through reading,  in person or by attending professional conferences.  After pursuing these avenues for growth, I leave feeling inspired and refreshed.  Working together and seeking to continually grow and improve, pushing oneself towards innovation while being authentic to one’s identity is key to professional development.  At the same time, I am a strong believer in reflection promoting growth.  Just as I ask my students to reflect on their own identities and their own developing practice, I continue to reflect on my own, using this blog as my main vehicle.

Advocating for Ourselves by Making Our Work Public

Finally, as teacher educators, we have to make our work public, just as the great work that is happening in classrooms needs to be made more public.  Too often, what populates the media about teachers are examples of those that dishonor the profession. Often only when teachers are tragically lost or on teacher appreciation days do we recognize the countless others who are doing great work in their classrooms.  As teacher educators, we need to feature the work that we are doing, that our candidates are doing and that their students are doing.  We must reclaim the idea of what evidence counts in making our work value added.  Yesterday, among the tweets that I received was this awesome example from a student of the ripples that our work causes in classrooms all over our communities:

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Evidence like this symbolizes the difference we make.  We must find and make public the power of our work, using varied sources of evidence to advocate for the work that we do. We must continue to be the change we wish to see in our world.