Teaching is hard for me. I do not mean to say that I don’t like it. I love it. Teaching astronomy is one of the best jobs there is, maybe even better than drummer in a powermetal band or point guard on a NBA team. Well, at least it’s a close third. And I also do not mean to say that I’m not good at it, as far as I can tell quite the opposite. But it’s physically and mentally hard, harder than most other things I have done in my life. That includes sauntering through English mud on a freezing Sunday in late January. In a penguin costume.
The thing is, by and large, I prefer being alone. Every social contact is exhausting for me, to some degree. Not unpleasant or scary or terrible or anything, just exhausting. Eating cheesecake is also exhausting, and yet it’s very good. Being surrounded by students who look at me for guidance and instructions is complete overload, even compared to cheesecake. Enjoyable, very, rewarding, absolutely, but also way too much. In my first years in this job, I was shutting down after a couple of weeks of teaching. At the end of term I was a wreck. This has gotten better over time, of course. Everything gets better if you just keep doing it. In particular, I don’t feel nervous anymore in front of a class, what a strange thing. My insides don’t feel anymore like they are about to go up in flames. But I still sit motionless in my office for half an hour after each lecture, without having a single thought.
For these reasons I have developed, over the years, a number of strategies that allow me to cope. To survive. Or, really, they allow me to have a good time while teaching, even when it goes on for months. That’s really what matters. I admit, in the end my survival rules might appear like a carefully designed training regimen. But I didn’t plan any of these strategies, they just emerged over the years by trial and error. None of what follows is particularly ground-breaking, and none of it has anything to do with actual teaching or even astronomy. Most of these rules are also very personal. They are not meant as advice for others. They wouldn’t work for others, for the most part. I seriously hope most of my colleagues don’t need any of that anyway. They might be very boring to read, I mean, they are about air and water, after all. My secret hope is that by writing them down once and for all I will finally be able to stick to them. Here are the ten most important ones, starting with the obvious and proceeding to the obscure.
No plans for anything else. My teaching schedule is very clumpy, and most of the heavy load happens in about two months of the year. During these two months I should really not plan anything else that is work related: no conferences, no travel, no grant writing, no observing campaigns, no data analysis, no peer-review, no family meetings, nothing. Since none of these things stop on its own, I need to stop them myself. This involves sending cancellations and feeling guilty about that. The way to mitigate guilt is, for me, to be transparent, to inform colleagues and friends and PhD students in advance that I will be of limited use. Also: This is the one rule that I have broken every single year so far. Every year I forget how hard these two months are. Every year I convince myself that I can do other stuff at the same time. It’s not true. At least I know that now.
Clearing my head. Before term starts, I clear out my office and my home. I throw away stuff. I put stuff in boxes. I throw it into the coal bunker. I get it out of the way. I finish binge watching this TV show. I know it’s going to be old Seinfeld clips for the next weeks. I finish projects, hide all the unfinished ones in places where I never look, and particularly, I try to forget everything about last year’s teaching. It should feel like the first time all over again. I make a a checklist, for the coming weeks, like an astronaut during the moon landing, a checklist for every thing I need to do for this course or that module. I make backups, multiple backups, and share them with other people. I share my checklist. I write all birthday cards, I pay all bills, I read off the counter for gas and electricity. All this to get things out of my head, to not worry about anything.
Preparing the material. This seems obvious, but it is important to keep in mind that it is impossible to prepare for teaching while teaching at the same time (although some colleagues give this idea a fair shot). I need to have all slides, all lecture plans, all tutorial questions, all labs ready, well in advance. A surprising number of unanticipated events will pop up during the semester anyway, fires to put out, special circumstances, schedule changes. But whatever I can prepare in advance, I should. Golden rule: For one hour of teaching I have never done before I need one day of prep time. If I have already done this last year, than it boils down to one hour. Still: Even without any new material to teach, it will take me several weeks to get ready. Fortunately, I can do this while sitting outside in the garden in the sunshine.
Planning for preparation and recovery time. It is difficult to admit, but teaching is more than just the hours with students. I plan for one or two hours of extra time for each lecture, I mean, in addition to the lecture itself and the time needed to prepare the material. I need that extra time to convert myself into the person who is completely focused and concentrated and presentable. Also, the person who can keep a straight face when things go wrong. And the person who smiles, is patient in the face of adversity, and does not make annoyed faces. After lectures, I plan for another hour or two of downtime. I go for a walk, down to the beach. Fortunately, I have a beach five minutes from work. I eat something, I take a nap. These phases are part of teaching and the moment I start skipping them, things start going downhill.
Keeping a strict daily routine. Getting enough sleep is very important for me in times of intense stress, and the easiest way to achieve that is by sticking to a strict, militant routine. Obviously, this is also a rule I violate regularly. When I’m teaching, I go to bed at the same time every day, I get up at the same time, I eat at the same time, I drink at the same time. I stop thinking about work in the hour before going to sleep. Basically, I don’t do anything outside my routine. I even eat the same things. Maybe this is something I should be doing for the whole year. But I like being up late at night. I’m also an astronomer. Which means, sticking to the same routine is neither desirable nor possible. But for these few weeks, normal life is suspended. I enter into the zone. Don’t disturb my routine.
Beating the freshers flue. At the beginning of term, when all students return from their homes, a small-town university turns into a gigantic incubator for particularly nasty strains of bacteria and viruses, which inevitably end up attacking the lecturer. Sometimes I think that this is the main purpose of universities. It’s difficult to get around that problem without avoiding contact with students, which is kind of the point of teaching. The first weeks of the semester is the only time of the year I take vitamin supplements regularly. I stockpile medicine in my office cabinet. I wash my hands religiously, every hour or so. I go away from my office and the classrooms as soon as I can. I leave the office window open whenever possible. I turn into one of these people who is obsessed with hygiene and cleanliness. It is not very pleasant, but it helps.
Protecting my voice. My voice is fragile. If I have to talk every day, for hours, in loud rooms, to large groups, it will take only a few days until my throat starts to hurt. Another week and my voice is shut. From here on every bit of teaching is painful. Every sentence is like the bite of an hyena. By the end of the two months, it feels like my larynx has been replaced by the skeleton of a leopard at the bottom of the sea. I have two strategies to avoid that. One is to simply teach with a microphone, whenever possible. The other one is to simply stop talking outside classrooms. The hardest part of this is to stop talking to myself when I’m alone. I’m also protecting my language. English is not my native language and if I’m not thinking and dreaming and wavering in English every day, the fluency suffers. It is hopefully not noticable from the outside, but it takes just a bit longer to find the words, which makes me feel stupid. I can’t have that. The only solution: Avoiding to speak German for a while.
Listening to my body. I have chronic sinus infection, that means, a few times a year I feel like my head is inside a block of concrete. This sounds quite bad, but it has some benefits. One is, my sinus starts to hurt days before I actually get sick. I use them like an early warning system. Too little sleep, too much this or that, and my sinus hurts. They buy me some time to take care of things before stuff goes bad. I realise that not everyone has such a very conveniently designed warning system. Even without that, I’m monitoring my level of exhaustion and anxiety as if I’m on an ultramarathon. If it gets too much, I slow down, I slam the brakes. If it feels managable, okay, I slow down as well, just a little. Start slowly and finish slugglishly, that’s the rule.
Staying awake. Okay, now enough with the lifestyle nonsense and some real talk. Coffee can only get me so far. It works very well for morning lectures and for the first few hours of the day. But it doesn’t carry me through the afternoon, and if I have to do another bit of teaching in the evening, it fails entirely. For years I experimented with various (legal) options to stay awake, and when I say awake, I mean really awake, not the kind of awake that is okay for normal work, but the absolute awakeness that I need for teaching. Nothing really worked, until I tried out a product called VPX Redline. It’s so powerful that I really don’t want to use it unless I really have to. It makes me so awake that it’s annoying. It comes in little bottles, contains a bunch of chemicals with incomprehensible names, and is sold as a fat burner for bodybuilder. And one sip of it removes every bit of tiredness, guaranteed.
Rewarding myself. I always wanted to ride in the Tour de France, and now I have the chance to do something just like that. Well, almost. That’s so great that I have to celebrate. Every day when I finish teaching, I get something I like. For example, I buy a bottle of good whisky and drink it, slowly, every day a bit. (This also helps falling asleep, after all the awakeness.) Or, more importantly, I go for a swim in the sea. This one has the benefit that it gets better and more exciting as the year goes on and the water gets colder. There is just no way not to feel good after a quick dip in ten degree cold water. Halfway through term, if everything goes well, I go for a weekend into the hills. Also, I watch some of my favorite bits of Seinfeld again. And I practice scales on the piano. Okay, that last bit is not so much a reward, but it helps somehow.