Reflections of a First Year Professor
I am nearing the end of my first year as a full-time, tenure-track professor. The year has been a roller coaster ride, with ups and downs and wide loops. I’ve learned many things this year, including the fact that your first year can be full of surprises.
After teaching a variety of classes off and on for 10 years as an adjunct (many at my alma mater, the institution where I was hired), I thought I had a good idea of what the year would hold: new preps, new people, occasional meetings, and lots of grading.
I discovered almost immediately, however, that there would be far more surprises than I anticipated.
Within the first few days of being on campus, our university introduced a reorganization of the entire university. I’m now teaching in a college I never expected, and the implications of the changes continue to have repercussions for the university community.
Perhaps more significantly, this year has been full of meetings, meetings, and more meetings: my first year has involved far more meetings than I could have imagined. Most of these have been related to the university reorganization, and so (I hope) this year may be exceptional, yet I now know that there are university meetings, department meetings, college meetings, and faculty-only meetings, just to name a few.
These meetings rarely fall at convenient times, and some have been less than enthralling while others have been quite scintillating. Through these meetings, I’ve learned a lot about the university, my colleagues, and the way things work. I’ve also learned how to stay awake, how to listen, and how (and when) to speak up.
Students are the most rewarding part of my job
I’ve also had many meetings with students, which can make my days longer yet also better. After all, getting to know the students is the most rewarding part of my job. My father always told me you can teach students information or you can teach information to students. I choose to teach students, and that means carving time out to meet with them and get to know them. I am convinced that one of the most important aspects of my job as a professor is letting students know they matter. For some students, just knowing their name is all they want or need (and that alone makes a huge difference in the classroom setting). For other students, however, the opportunity to get to know a professor outside of class enriches their college experience: some seek such opportunities on their own, while others respond enthusiastically to offers to chat outside of class.
In responding to their journals, talking with them before and after class, meeting with them over coffee during office hours, and listening when they need someone to hear them, I’ve discovered that getting to know students is one of the greatest privileges of the profession. I continue to be amazed, honored, and humbled that they share so much of their lives with me. (Sometimes I wish I had a degree in counseling, but, thankfully, we have a counseling center I can—and do—recommend to students.)
Conversations have ranged from graduate school advice to questions on choosing a major to conundrums involving roommates to deep theological debates and more, including many personal matters. The topic may change, but the need to listen and engage with my students doesn’t.
These interactions change me, too. Not only do they help me better know the students whom I’m teaching, but these conversations also remind me of all I’ve learned over the years and how much more I have still to learn.
Room to Grow
This first year of teaching may represent the fulfillment of a long-term goal: a full-time, decent-paying job that allows me to teach students and talk about subjects I’m passionate about (and, ideally, allows time for research, too). Yet it also is the first year, and like a growing child in her first year, I still have much room to grow.
Despite all my years of adjuncting, during this first year I have realized more fully the importance of humility. Humility is a necessary virtue for this job. I joke with my students that I have daily mishaps or daily commit mistakes that remind me of my need to be humble, and yet, in many ways, I’m not joking. Teaching affords me multiple opportunities to practice humility: to admit that my lecture bombed, that my plans for that assignment didn’t resound well with the students, that I didn’t communicate as clearly as I’d thought. I do and will make mistakes, but it’s not the end of the world. Rather, those mistakes are opportunities to grow.
Students (and colleagues) watch us when we face obstacles, and though I know I have not always successfully embraced humility, I do think that the moments when I’ve admitted my weaknesses, failings, or ignorance have been some of my most successful moments this year. I’ve noticed that students are gracious to new professors and respond well when you admit that you’re learning, too. One student even told me that he appreciates that I don’t know everything!
Take advantage of the wisdom and support of colleagues
Similarly, even though I’m teaching at my alma mater, a place where I also taught as an adjunct, I still don’t know the ins and outs of the university from the full-time faculty member perspective. For instance, I know the history of the building that houses the cafeteria, but I had to ask where to find manila folders for my office! I have appreciated the willingness of more-experienced and senior faculty and staff to answer my questions and to help me with little and big issues, from where to find those folders to how to apply for research fellowships, handle difficult students, and address sensitive topics in the classroom.
As I’ve sought the advice of others, I’ve been reminded that good colleagues are one of the benefits of the job, and I should take advantage of the experience and wisdom of those who have been doing this longer (and better!) than me. I’ve found that people are happy to share their wisdom and knowledge, and their help has been invaluable. Also, in seeking help, I’ve been able to cultivate relationships with my colleagues. These relationships enrich my own life, and our camaraderie contributes to making our university a place where people of diverse backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints work together for a common purpose.
I have a voice and am part of the community
I’ve appreciated the support of the senior colleagues, who also remind me not to lose confidence: being junior faculty doesn’t mean I have to remain silent all the time. Although I know sometimes I have spoken when I should have listened, the senior faculty at my institution have encouraged me to remember that I have a voice and am part of the community.
When I’ve expressed hesitation about participating in the larger conversations going on at our university, senior faculty have reminded me that they want the junior faculty to feel welcome and to contribute to the discussion. Such encouragement underscores that even as I realize my ignorance and limitations, I am still part of a larger learning community where all voices have something to offer. Likewise, in the classroom, I have to remember that I really do know more than my students and can teach them, even on days when I feel very “junior” or am overwhelmed by all the new preps or by the difficulties of balancing teaching and the rest of my life.
As I’ve attempted to balance all the meetings, responsibilities, difficulties, and joys of this year, I’ve discovered that everything takes more time than I expected, but I have to take time to rest, and I can’t let this job consume me. I’ve lowered my research and writing goals for this year; I’ve accepted that my house will never be organized and that I will sometimes (or often) appear the scatter-brained professor; I’ve recognized that I need to create boundaries to keep my priorities straight. I haven’t figured this all out yet—I’m still not getting nearly enough sleep—but I have discovered the importance of keeping this job in perspective, even when I fail to do so.
Our family is in the habit of keeping the Sabbath, that is, not working on Sundays, and I’ve found that setting aside my role as professor for 24 hours a week in order to spend time worshipping God and relaxing with my husband and children makes me a healthier, more joyful person. After all, although I love what I do, and I am grateful to be a first-year professor, I also need to live a life outside the classroom and office. Now, if I can just figure out how to do that and get a decent amount of sleep….
A graduate of Eastern (B.A., '02), Villanova (M.A., '04), and Temple (Ph.D., '14) universities, Dr. Sandy Haney has returned to Eastern University as an Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies, where she teaches classes in Bible and Theology. Her research focuses on marriage, family, and asceticism in ancient Christianity. She also is happily married and a mom to two.