We've reached the end of the semester and the end of my first year on the tenure-track. I've been thinking a lot lately about how different this school year feels than last, and where those differences come from.
The obvious difference is that last year I was in a one-year position at Briggs that was coming to an end. It was about this time that I accepted my new job, but I didn't yet have plans beyond "I guess that means we're moving." This year I may be moving again, but if so it will be to a house a few miles down the road, not halfway across the country to a new home and new jobs for Mr. Haas and me.
The less obvious difference is that, although 2015/2016 was my first year at Misericordia, it wasn't my first year professor-ing. What a huge difference that makes.
Last year I had to adjust to my new role and identity, as well as a new place, new people, new expectations. I was afraid of the copy room for a while, and afraid of my phone ringing. The anxious sky-is-falling part of me was convinced I was not good enough for the job I was doing, and that every phone call, every last-minute meeting, every "Do you have a minute?" conversation was the moment when I was going to be found out and sent packing.
Learning and growing can be a struggle, and at the time I knew that I was struggling – and succeeding. But looking back a year later, I can see just how hard I fought to keep my head above water. I was drowning in doubt. I was having panic attacks. I was depressed, and I didn't know it until the burden of blue fog, lethargy and sadness lifted.
The struggles make it sound like my year at Briggs was awful. It wasn't. It was wonderful! I had 250 amazing students who impressed me over and over. I had excellent colleagues who welcomed me and treated me with more respect than my anxiety let me feel I deserved. I found teachers who shared their best tips and tricks, who gave honest and critical feedback that improved my teaching, and who inspired me to keep going when the evaluations were rough and the stack of grading felt insurmountable. I met researchers who helped me see the value of my own modest research questions. I found mentors who built me up when the blues brought me low, who urged me to get more help for the internal battles I was fighting, and who modeled balance in their own ways.
If I could talk to my year-ago self to help her along, I'd tell her what it looks like from here.
I learned that it is good for my mental health to get out of my office. Eating lunch at my desk makes me feel isolated, and isolation feeds the Impostor. Even if I still eat alone, I go to the kitchenette near my office. Someone usually drops in to use the microwave, grab a cup of coffee, or refill a water bottle from the cooler.
I learned that I can, in fact, do this job. Day in and day out. That I can hold a decent class even when I am not sure what the pitfalls will be, or where discussion might take us.
I found that, having prepared slides, examples, and questions for one class, I have my own very valuable collection of resources for future classes. Getting someone else's documents helps, but having your own toolkit makes a difference, even if you're teaching something new.
I learned how to say "good enough." And in the coming years, I will probably learn that I should say that earlier than I do now.
I learned that you can't predict what the students will remember best. One student at Briggs told me that the most interesting chemistry they learned the entire semester was about how milk is homogenized – something I mentioned offhand the first week of class because it was an everyday application of homogeneous and heterogeneous mixtures that I'd learned about growing up on a dairy farm.
I learned that it's okay not to know what you're doing because nobody else does either. A colleague of mine at MU recently got tenure, and she'll be the first to tell you that she makes it up as she goes along. Another colleague at Briggs has been teaching and researching most of my life, and he's told me that he still feels like a fraud.
I learned to ask for help, even when that anxiety voice is screaming that YOU SHOULD NOT DO THIS, THEY WILL KNOW YOU ARE STUPID AND BAD AT EVERYTHING. I learned that the sky will not fall, and those questions you think everyone else already knows the answer to might not have been answered yet.
I learned that you don't have to have a reason to stop outside an open office door and say Hello or invite someone to chat over a cup of coffee. (If this hangup sounds strange to you, understand that my particular flavor of introversion and insecurity presupposes that I am insignificant, and therefore that people besides close friends do not care what I have to say and will not find it worthwhile. I am, for example, continuously surprised that other people read this blog. My rational mind understands the evidence to the contrary, but my anxious mind refuses to accept it.)
I learned that you can feel like you're terrible at being an adult and still get stuff done. There is no certification for Adulting. You will still have mornings when you won't want to get out of bed and life will feel unfair. You will still have days when you want to throw a tantrum like you're three, but you won't because that would be exhausting and you feel tired already. You will still have evenings when you will ignore the grading and watch Netflix instead.
I learned to introduce myself as Dr. Haas when meeting new people on campus to short-circuit being misidentified as a student.
I learned that teaching questions can become research questions, and that research questions don't have to begin with intricate plans.
I learned to pack a go-bag of stuff for lecture so I don't forget the papers I planned to hand out or find that the chalk or dry erase markers are all missing. I also learned to take this bag home so I don't have to retrieve it from my office before class.
I found a lot of people who are struggling with and learning the same kinds of things. Many of them are sharing their stories on Twitter, or on blogs. I learned that I am not alone.
So thanks to the folks at Briggs and Misericordia who taught me many of these lessons. And thanks to the Twitter crowd for sharing their struggles and hard-won wisdom. Thanks to my mentors and my cheerleaders for having the confidence that I lacked, and for lifting me out of many a rut. Year-ago self, you're in good hands.