Teaching Outside of Your Comfort Zone


millerBy Melissa Miller, Ed.D., M.Ed.

I was so excited to accept the position as an adjunct where I am currently teaching that I was honestly willing to teach any course they assigned to me. I remember feeling this way directly out of college – the excitement of taking my first job, earning my first paycheck. I didn’t think very deeply about whether the job was the right fit for me, or whether I was the right fit for it. I was just happy to be employed.

Often, in one’s eagerness, one overlooks things that become important later in your career – things like mobility, advancement, and professional development. 
I didn’t expect to be feeling this way at this point in my career. However, after taking time off for maternity leave and to finish my doctorate, I had been out of the field for about two years. I was willing to take anything that came my way. I’d decided to go back to school so that I could teach college part-time, so I was certainly feeling anxious about finding the “right” position. I wanted to put my expertise to good use. When job hunting, however, I applied for pretty much anything and everything for which I thought I was remotely qualified!

Have you ever been in a position such as this? I felt a bit like a fish out of water.
It can zap your confidence level when the e-mail comes confirming an assignment to teach that first course as an adjunct, and it’s not the subject or course you were expecting. Maybe you were assigned a freshman intro course or a study skills class that you feel doesn’t allow you to showcase your expertise. Part of you knows that it is the first step of many in a long career, so maybe you’re willing to pay your dues. The other part of you is disappointed because you were excited and eager to be teaching what you are most passionate about.

It can be difficult to match the perfect course with the perfect professor. It’s like pedagogical dating, where you have to sample several courses before settling in with the perfect course mate. But even then, you have to grow and be flexible with your partner. Are you going to want to teach that course forever? What happens when you are ready to move on to something new, maybe an upper-level course, maybe a new methods class?

Perhaps a silver lining to being assigned a course you didn’t think you wanted is that it opens up new paths you wouldn’t have previously considered. Thinking back to my goal when job-hunting, was there such a thing as the “right” position? Through the process I learned that sometimes being pushed outside of my comfort zone is when I do my best work. Being pushed out of our comfort zones may be when we delve in to a new area of interest, or discover a new subject or skill.
After all, don’t we counsel our students to be open to learning new things, to take advantage of a new opportunity, and to have a positive attitude? These are good qualities for anyone in any profession, including adjuncts teaching part-time, especially ones new to the classroom.

About the New Adjunct: Dr. Melissa Miller completed her Ed.D. with an emphasis in Teacher Leadership from Walden University. She holds a M.Ed. from Mary Washington University and a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies from Virginia Tech. Dr. Miller’s professional and research interests include adult and online learning, professional development, and literacy. Presently, Dr. Miller works as an adjunct instructor and an evaluator, while also enjoying her role as a wife and mother.

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  1. I saw your pretty picture and realized how young and new to the adjunct world you are and even though I am a mother of five and grandma of 8 I am still a relatively new adjunct professor. I have been teaching for 5 years – three years at my present university and I always take whatever classes they want to give me because adjuncts cannot be choosy. We get all the English 101 classes and all the developmental English classes. Most full time professors do not want to teach developmental classes that are filled with students who are unqualified for college level courses, have fresh as paint classroom attitudes and are often disrespectful and rude as well as often absent. The excuses I have heard for why a student can’t attend class or hand in an assignment are priceless. I had one students whose grandfather died at one school where I taught and when I had him again in another university, his grandfather died again.

    Trying to get ideas for my classes from other professors has been very difficult. Finally I have made some real friends at school who are willing to share ideas with me and my classes have improved so much thanks to those kind colleagues. The Internet is my best friend. I am on there constantly looking for fresh ideas to capture my students interest, to present essays in interesting ways and to find information about lesson plans and ways to teach certain types of writing styles. Now, in my fourth year, I feel happy with my resources and with my command of the subjects that I teach, but I still have far to go before I am an expert. There have been so many focus changes in composition classes over the years from from Elbow’s writing without borders to today’s focus on argument. I have to keep up with the latest focus, the latest anthology, the latest classroom presentation styles and on and on. Be glad that you are asked to teach different courses. It expands your command of your subject (English) when you have to teach English to developmentally challenged students. You are forced to find new ways to explain concepts and find new ways to keep their attention. I taught business English and was terrified, but discovered that business English is wonderfully usable and sensible and I have since incorporated some of the principles into my regular writing classes. So look at every class as an opportunity to grow as a teacher. You’ll be terrified on that first day, but you will be a pro at the end.

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