teaching college is hard as shit, and students are afraid to be creative.


by Ama McKinley

I’m a first semester instructor this fall, guiding 106 students as they learn Human Communication and Graphic Design. Sometimes, this job still feels like i’m being punked.

When I was in college, I was notorious for skipping class and general rebellion. I’d create uproars, break dress code just because (we had to dress in business-casual attire in my department), and poke fun at the rules like cellophane over a window. For what it matters, I graduated with honors.

Being on the other side of this equation now, holding the position of the previously “taunted” as instructor, is one of the best games of karma that the Universe has ever played on me. If the planets started plotting this back in 2005, I wouldn’t be surprised.

The opportunity to teach truly came out of nowhere, and I was hella intimidated. I took this job because, in some ways, my own fears propel me forward — I can’t hold my own life back because of the fear of finding out what’s on the other side of a silent black veil. So I took this job as the professional equivalent to skydiving.

During my first week on the job, while already working another full-time job, I gave my students one promise — I would stay one class ahead of them; a week ahead would be a luxury.

As a visiting lecturer/adjunct, I prepare for each class the day-of, or evening (or morning) before. Twenty-eight and yet childless, I’ve never had to be this responsible, in long form. I’ve never created lesson plans, or syllabi. On-boarding support from the department does not exist. I heavily considered quitting, but had already committed myself to the development of 106 students with futures to fulfill.

I teach InDesign and Photoshop, although my most formal design education was earned from free classes at the Orlando Public library back in 2013. And as far as Human Communication goes, I have a big break because communication what I do. I never pretend to know the answers when I don’t, and instead offer up chances for us to all learn together. Imposter Syndrome as an instructor is REAL, but I try and save myself by being authentic.

So basically, I spent the first six weeks of my job crying, snotting all over my boyfriend, cursing, giving up sleep, and praying, full of regret for taking on this job and planning my resignation.

This week in Design class, I gave my students a Photoshop Challenge, which is essentially a test to cover all of the software skills we’ve learned.

Observation: When it comes to assessments and learning in general, so many of my students struggle with choices, options, problem solving. When I don’t restrict them to a box, all hell breaks loose.

When designing, if the Magic Wand tool doesn’t work, many of my students get stuck and won’t try another tool or method…Magnetic Lasso, refined edges…nothing. They just get stuck, whine, complain. They ask me about basic shortcuts that we use in every single class. I’m infamous for answering basic questions with “Google it!”.

Is this experience unique to me as a teacher? Anybody else out there struggling with teaching their students to be thinkers?

But then, there are the quiet few students who, instead of crying out and cursing the creator (in this case, me), get deeper into the work. They get curious, and resourceful. They actually Google examples, without being told. They just start trying shit! Pressing buttons, seeing what happens, and are so proud to find that their efforts have worked in their favor.

These are my favorite and best students — The Makers. The curious ones. The relentless few, who take the wet energy of a complaint and mold it like clay into curiosity. They get creative, and get the answers they seek. And they’re better designers for it.

I realize now that I am all of these students — I began my semester with lots of whining, snot and anger, cursing the Creator for the task and the process. But somewhere along the way, I recognized and accepted that I have complete creative freedom to make my classes whatever I want them to be…like Obatala, orisha of creation, who hand crafted every human from clay. He too was given a creative task with large boundaries, no map, and little oversight…divinely sanctioned.

Near-boundless creativity…what could be more freeing than that?

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