I never thought I’d be a teacher.
I get easily frustrated explaining things more than once, and I don’t necessarily think of myself as the most outgoing person—both of which aren’t prime teaching qualities.
But when an opportunity to teach an introductory course in copywriting at The University of the Arts was presented to me last summer, my ears perked up in a way that surprised me. Throughout more than six years of working directly with copywriting interns in my role at ChatterBlast, I’ve compiled a mental list of things that I wish copywriting students were learning in their coursework—so when given the opportunity to actually put that list into practice, it would have felt silly to say no.
It’s hard to believe, but I’m now nearing the end of my second semester teaching this course. Unsurprisingly, I’ve learned plenty of my own lessons along the way about effective teaching, many of which I’ve applied to my “day” job as well. Here are the four that stand out the most.
1. Your instructions are never as clear as you think they are.
Anytime I’ve put together an assignment, I’ve paid extra attention to the way I write the instructions. I’ve looked at the language from multiple angles and tried to predict any opportunities for misinterpretation in order to get ahead of students doing a task incorrectly. “This is as clear as it could possibly be, right?” I’ve asked myself over and over.
Wrong. I’ve had to accept that it’s next to impossible to make a set of instructions absolutely foolproof, no matter how hard you try. And while it can be frustrating to realize a student has misinterpreted what I wanted them to do, it’s actually fascinating — every student has such a unique way of processing information and drawing conclusions from it, and analyzing how and where my instructions led them toward a certain outcome can be quite insightful.
Developing a greater appreciation for these nuances in how people absorb and interpret instructions has also improved my process for assigning tasks to interns and team members, and it has certainly taught me to appreciate the work that was put into an assignment, regardless of how closely it aligned with my original request.
2. You’re never going to cover everything, nor should you have to.
As I created the syllabus for my course, I found myself stressing about where to fit in instruction about a highly specific copywriting tactic or strategy. I felt caught between feeling like it was a disservice to my students to not discuss how to write for a certain niche ad platform, but then realizing that if I did, I’d have to spend half the class first explaining what that platform is and how it works. Many times, I had to remind myself of this simple fact: It’s an introductory course. My students are not going to learn everything there is to know about copywriting in 15 weeks, and that’s okay.
This logic applies to the way I grade my students’ work as well. I have to remember that the way I—someone with eight years of professional experience—would approach a copywriting assignment is not what I should expect from students in an introductory course. I’ve learned to analyze their work for signs that they’ve understood the central concepts and are thinking about them critically rather than evidence that they’ve mastered a particular skill.
It's #backtoschool season for these Blasters—but not as students! This fall, VP of Strategy @jacquelinkollar heads into her 7th year teaching #digitalmarketing, and Associate Creative Director @valperiepal begins teaching #copywriting for the first time, both at @UArts. 🤓 pic.twitter.com/OspNsEJgIL— ChatterBlast Media (@ChatterBlast) September 9, 2021
3. It’s okay to not have it perfect on the first try.
Here’s another fundamental truth I had to accept from the beginning: The classes from my first-ever semester teaching are going to be worse than the ones I teach in my second semester, which are going to be worse than the ones I teach in my 10th semester.
Across just two cycles, I’ve already identified tons of improvements I can make based on what did and didn’t work well within class. I’ve had classes where I didn’t include enough prompts for participation, classes where I used references that the students flat-out did not know, and classes where my timing was off and I finished much earlier than expected. None of it means that these classes were bad. It just means that my next ones will be better, because I’ve had even more time to optimize them based on experience.
4. A little bit of empathy and flexibility goes a long way.
When I was a student, from elementary school all the way through college, I was a rigid rule-follower. The thought of submitting an assignment late or asking a professor for an extension made me queasy. But I also had the luxury of not being a student throughout a two-year pandemic and not experiencing any substantially tragic or traumatic events in my personal life, either.
At the beginning of my first semester, I assumed by default that I’d be a stickler for timely submissions. But the first time a student asked for a reasonable extension and explained why, I realized I truly had no desire to say no. Would grading it a few days later be an inconvenience to me? No. Would a slight delay in submission be a reflection of their capabilities as a copywriter? No. Would granting the extension have any real impact on my life in any way? Not at all.
Of course, this necessitates a delicate balance between granting flexibility and letting that flexibility be abused. But so far, I’ve been met with nothing but genuine gratitude from students for giving them a little wiggle room when they needed it, and I’ve drawn clear boundaries about when I’m no longer willing to accept late work.
When I started this whole teaching thing about a year ago, I wasn’t sure if I would like it or want to continue past the first semester. But I’m happy to say that as I’ve built up confidence in what I have to share, I’ve enjoyed learning plenty of my own lessons along the way.