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As provost, I have spent this summer imagining what I will say to welcome our new faculty this fall. Little is more exciting than starting college as a first-year student or beginning a new job as a first-time faculty member. And yet it is a volatile time in our precious sector. The attacks from outside and the challenges within can be overwhelming and dispiriting. Meanwhile, many of us who have worked in higher ed for a while may struggle to remember what it feels like to be new faculty.
But it’s worth remembering why we work daily to make college wonderful. We work in higher education because at the core, we believe learning changes people forever. At its best, it makes better human beings.
When we remember our calling to teach and learn, beyond managing the daily demands, it not only recenters meaning in our work, but also recenters students who are counting on us. In the oft-quoted “Letters to a Young Poet,” Rainer Maria Rilke warns that “most people come to know only one corner of their room, one spot near the window, one narrow strip on which they keep walking back and forth.” Teachers take a tiny world and make it bigger. But don’t forget yourself in the process. My wish for you, new professor at the beginning of a career, is to remember these things.
Remember when and why you fell in love with learning.
Remember what it feels like to be the new student at school. Share that you, too, are new and feeling what they feel. Share your own student first-day story.
Remember when you failed at something; tell students about it.
Remember learning increases as psychological safety increases; content and connection are one.
Invest early and often in making your classroom a community through creative group work, name exercises and experiments with tools outside your disciplinary comfort zone.
Remember to not ask students to do anything you wouldn’t do. If you ask them a question or propose a challenge, you should be willing to do it, too.
Remember that as you’re lighting their fire intellectually, you must keep lighting yours as well. Your excitement for your research ignites theirs.
Remember kindness always. And accountability. In teaching, they are necessary siblings.
Be caring, but also set boundaries around expectations they will encounter doing life.
Remember people—students, colleagues, administrators—are humans trying their best. Students are figuring out who you are—a friend, a mentor, an annoyance? Give your students and your colleagues grace.
Remember creating classroom spaces of belonging is intentional and hard won. Ask for help if you don’t know where to start. And if you do know where to start and become exhausted, ask for help even more.
Remember sometimes you have a bad day and so do students; emphasize that resilience and solid habits matter, not perfection.
Remember a classroom is a microcosm of a city, a state, a country—democracy depends on you.
Stage disagreements and discuss hard things in a controlled classroom context with bumpers on; it’s practice for citizenship.
Remember to teach students to cultivate creativity and manage drama. Water what grows.
Watch the doers. Focus on building and creating; minimize small things like irritations and gossip.
Remember college students often just need one—one friend, one mentor, one thing they dig and do.
Remember college is an opportunity, and we are stewards affirming its worth daily. Teach students not to take college for granted. It will remind you how teaching is also an honor.
Remember anything worth doing is worth doing because of love.
In his essay “Two Ways of Seeing a River,” Mark Twain describes how once he loved the river, but after he studied and worked it, “the romance and beauty” of the river were gone. He notes, “All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat.” While Twain said he had “mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet,” he had “lost something, too.” New faculty, you too will see the river two ways. But even as you work the river, don’t forget the romance and beauty.
Remember, new faculty member, we want and need you to succeed. We need each other in this work. Now go and teach with heart.