back to school

A back to school tip for aspiring teachers and academics

If you’re confused in school now, you can use that confusion to become a better teacher later. You can write detailed notes about what you’re confused about and and why. Doing this may help you to figure things out now, and it will definitely help you to teach well in the future. 

Teaching is hard, and teaching beginners is often harder. Knowing a subject well isn’t the same as knowing how to teach it. Teachers need to be able to explain things in a way that will make sense to beginners. They also need to be able to figure out why students are getting confused, and find ways to help them understand. This is much easier said than done.

Right now, you’re probably confused about some things that will feel completely obvious in a year or two. Many things that are hard to master feel completely natural once you’ve learned them. It can be hard to understand why something that has come to feel completely natural to you is confusing to your students.

As a student, you’re likely confused about your subject; as a teacher, you are likely to be confused about your students. If you write down what you’re confused about as a student, you will be doing your future self a huge favor. The notes themselves may be helpful when you teach. Beyond that, writing notes about yourself as a student can help you to start thinking from a teaching perspective. The sooner you get into the habit of thinking about your subject with teaching in mind, the better off you’ll be in the long term.

Tl;dr If you’re confused in school, you can use your confusion to be a better teacher in the future. Consider writing down what you are confused about and why. In the future, you will have students who are confused. Understanding your own confusion now can help you to understand theirs later.

Answering “How was your summer?” when your summer was unpleasant

filosoraptor said to realsocialskills:
I go back to school soon and I’ve been trying to prepare for when someone inevitably asks me how my summer was. My first response would be that it was quite lonely because almost all of my plans ended up being cancelled. Would answering like that make someone uncomfortable?

Realsocialskills said:

That response would make most people uncomfortable.

Generally speaking, “How was your summer?” isn’t something people ask because they literally want information about how your summer was.

That kind of question is usually either just a greeting, or a way of opening conversation.

When it’s a greeting, it really just means something along the lines of “Hello, I haven’t seen you for a while.” The usual answer is something like, “It was good. How was yours?”. Answering that way doesn’t mean you’re literally saying you had a good summer. It really just means hello. It’s not a lie, it’s non-literal language.

When “How was your summer?” is a way of opening conversation, it’s an attempt to find something to talk about. The point is to find something that both people can comfortably discuss. The polite way to do this is to ask questions about what the other person said until you find a topic you’re both interested in. It’s considered a bit rude to just change the subject.

Here’s an example of how that can work (the people’s names are randomly generated):

  • Jacob: Hey, how was your summer?
  • Maxine: Pretty good. I was mostly working. How was yours?
  • Jacob: Pretty good — I decided to take a summer school class about color theory and painting.
  • Maxine: That’s cool — I’ve always wanted to try something like that, but I haven’t had the time.
  • Jacob: It wasn’t as fun as I thought it would be, but I did learn a lot of things that are surprisingly applicable to my other classes.
  • Maxine: That’s something anyway. Did the credits count towards anything?
  • (And so on).

If Maxine’s summer actually sucked a lot, mentioning it could end up being really awkward:

  • Jacob: How was your summer?
  • Maxine: It was really lonely. All of my plans fell through.

In this example:

  • Maxine only mentioned two topics: summer being lonely, and plans falling through. 
  • These are both uncomfortable topics.
  • In social situations oriented towards making pleasant conversation, most people won’t want to talk about loneliness or plans falling through 
  • Since Maxine didn’t mention about anything potentially comfortable to discuss, it could be hard for Jacob to keep looking for a mutually comfortable subject without feeling rude. 
  • He might also feel like he’s supposed to comfort Maxine or that there’s no good response to what she just said.
  • This is likely to feel awkward to both of them

There are ways to mention the unpleasantness of summer that are less likely to make the I-haven’t-seen-you-in-a-while conversation unpleasant. It helps if:

  • You avoid giving the impression that you’re upset that they asked, and:
  • You make it clear that you’re not trying to start a conversation about the unpleasantness of summer, and:
  • You include an opening to talk about something else.

For instance:

  • Jacob: How was your summer?
  • Maxine: Eh, kind of sucked. I’m glad to be back — now that I’m past the intro classes things are getting a lot more interesting. 
  • Jacob: What are you majoring in?
  • Maxine: I’m still deciding between history, political science, and pre-law. But a lot of interesting second-year classes count towards both, so I’m keeping both options open.
  • Jacob: I considered that too, but ended up deciding on theater. 
  • Maxine: What are you planning to do with that?
  • Jacob: Hopefully acting or set design. I figure that in any case speaking, acting, and logistical skills will be useful in any job.
  • (And so on).

You can also just say that your summer was ok and then ask how theirs was. That gives them an opening to mention things they did, which might work as a topic of conversation. Eg:

  • Jacob: How was your summer?
  • Maxine: It was ok. How was yours?
  • Jacob: It was pretty good. I took a summer school class on painting and color theory.
  • (And so on).

Again, even if your summer was awful, saying “It was ok” isn’t a lie, it’s just non-literal language:

  • “How was your summer?” isn’t usually meant literally.
  • Your answers to that question don’t have to be literal either.
  • The question usually means something like “Hello. Nice to see you again. Let’s talk about something. Is your summer a good topic of conversation?”
  • Saying “It was ok, how was yours?” usually means something like, “Hello. Nice to see you again too. Let’s talk about something other than my summer. Is your summer a good topic of conversation?”

Tl;dr “How was your summer?” usually isn’t literally intended to find out how your summer was. It’s usually a way of either saying hello or looking for something to talk about. Most people don’t want to have a conversation about how unpleasant your summer was. If your summer was bad, usually the best thing to do is to try steering the conversation to another topic.