by Jessica Allingham, Assistant Teaching Professor, Chemistry
As I look back on my first year as a new faculty member at Thompson Rivers University, I have a mix of emotions and reflections on the journey, including the excitement and eagerness as I embarked on a new chapter; the frustration and sense of overwhelm as I faced challenges and learning curves; and the confusion in navigating new administrated processes, understanding the dynamics of my faculty and department, balancing teaching, service and other responsibilities that overwhelmed me at times. I hope to share my thoughts and reflections with you, a new faculty member, in hopes of letting you know that your feelings and struggles are normal and perhaps even to offer some advice on how to cope; however, I promise nothing, since I am still trying to figure that out for myself.
My first year was hard yet fulfilling. I had some great successes, but I also experienced some huge flops. The year felt like one big oxymoron full of contradictory things all packaged together, but in the best way possible. There were several times throughout the year when I questioned my ability to do this job, or that I felt like moving to Kamloops was a mistake, but there were so many more times when I felt so unbelievably blessed to have landed my dream job, to live in such a beautiful part of the world, and to be surrounded by such amazing people. Throughout your first year, I am sure you will feel such a mix of emotions and you will face a variety of challenges, but remember that this, too, shall pass, so push through the hard stuff and sit in the good stuff. Take the time to enjoy, appreciate. and be grateful for the good parts of your job, because they, too, will pass.
Some of the main takeaways and learning I have from my first year as a new faculty member are these:
1. Build relationships. Build relationships with colleagues, staff and students. You do not need to embark on this journey alone. TRU is a community of amazing individuals ready and willing to support you. Participate in as many social events in your department, faculty, and community as possible. I know that it always feels as though there is never enough time but making time to build relationships will pay dividends in the end.
Build relationships outside of the TRU community as well. I moved to Kamloops from Thunder Bay, Ontario, knowing no one here. It is so important to build a circle of friends separate from your job to help you establish balance in your life. One of the most important things I did during my first year at TRU was to participate in extracurricular activities outside of the university, like joining a slo-pitch team and participating in fitness classes weekly. I have made some amazing friends in both these arenas, which helped to combat the loneliness and isolation I felt throughout my first year. Starting a new job, especially in a new city, is a huge change, and it can be lonely. Taking care of your social and emotional needs by building relationships outside of work is so important, I am not sure I would have made it through my first year as successfully without them.
I can hear you right now saying, “but Jess, I don’t have enough time.” I said the exact same thing, but believe me, taking the time to do things that bring you joy with people who foster your peace will make doing your job so much easier.
2. Balance and boundaries. Find a balance between work and life and set boundaries to maintain it. This was a big struggle for me. This job is very demanding, especially in the first year, when all your courses are new to you. It is hard to take time to yourself or to spend with family and friends when you feel like there is always something to do. But burnout is a very real and prevalent issue, especially in academia. Finding that balance is the best way to combat burnout.
I am sharing this advice to remind myself to find balance as much as I am sharing it with all of you. Schedule time for yourself and your family; block it out in your calendar so people know you are unavailable; don’t respond to emails at all hours; set a reasonable window of time where you will be accessible via email; take your weekends; and plan fun things outside of work. It is so important to set boundaries to protect your peace and maintain your work-life balance. Boundaries are hard for me; I don’t like to say no or to inconvenience other people. I think Brené Brown said it best, though: “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”
3. Take it slow. You do not need to do everything in your first year. I have mentioned not having enough time several times already, and it’s true: there is never enough time. We need to use our time as effectively as possible, so pick a few things you would like to implement or goals you would like to achieve in your first year and focus on those. Be realistic. I know I came into this job with so many cool and fun ideas, and I implemented probably two of them this past year, and that’s okay, because I survived my first year and that is accomplishment enough! No one is expecting you to reinvent the wheel or to have spectacular, fully developed new courses in your first year, so neither should you. Implement a few of your ideas at a time, especially if you are in a tenure-track position, as you will have plenty of time to implement all your ideas, so there is no need to do it all at once.
4. Celebrate the small things. Celebrate your achievements no matter how small you may feel they are. A successful quiz with a decent class average is worth celebrating. Putting together a nice slide-deck you are proud of is worth celebrating. A really engaging lecture is worth celebrating. An appreciative student email is worth celebrating. So often we focus on the negative aspects of our jobs and our lives that we simply drift right by the good stuff. Take time to acknowledge the wins just as much as the losses. I am not saying you need to get a cake for each of the events listed above–I mean, you can if you would like and I will gladly come and celebrate with you if you would like the company–but simply taking a moment to say to yourself, wow I did a good job, makes a big difference.
5. You belong here. Imposter syndrome is not just for students: it can carry on into our careers as well. If you are feeling like you don’t deserve this job, or you don’t belong here, trust me when I say you are not alone. I had those thoughts and feelings a lot throughout my first year. I promise you: you do belong, and you are good enough. You wouldn’t have been hired for the job if your department and faculty did not believe in you, so you need to believe in yourself. I know, easier said than done. Celebrating the little things can help you to build confidence in your ability as a faculty member. Reach out to the people you have built relationships with as well. As I said, you are not alone; we have all had these feelings, and we can help each other to work through them.
6. Ask for help. If you are stuck or not sure about something, simply ask for help. TRU is full of so many amazing resources and wonderful people who would love to help you succeed. Asking for help can be hard because you are admitting that you don’t know something, but you are not expected to know everything, especially in your first year. Use your resources; consult your colleagues; lean on the relationships you have built. Asking for help is much easier than struggling on your own.
7. Keep growing and learning. Life-long learning is so important for personal and professional growth. It helps us to adapt to change, stay relevant, cultivate curiosity, and foster our creativity. I got my job at TRU around the same time I successfully defended my doctoral research, so I thought my new job meant I was done being a student, but was I ever wrong. I learnt so much in my first year as a faculty member, and I know that my learning will continue. I recommend you take advantage of all the amazing learning opportunities TRU provides its faculty members, especially those offered by the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT). I am a chemist by trade, not an educator; however, I found myself in a job that predominantly required me to teach. CELT workshops and programs provided me with so many amazing tools to enhance my teaching. So stay curious; approach this job with an open mind; ask questions; and look for opportunities to learn new things.
8. Have fun. Yes, this is a job, but that does not mean that it cannot be fun. I am grateful every day that I get to do what I love. Keeping the element of fun in this job ensures that I continue to enjoy it. The fun can come from cool activities with your students, enjoyable interactions with colleagues, memes and jokes, trying new things, participating in social events, helping with a club, and so many other things. Don’t forget why you wanted this job and why you love it. Lean into those aspects and enjoy yourself. Don’t take yourself too seriously–at the end of the day, we’re all human.
Remember the first year is just the beginning of your journey as a faculty member. Embrace the challenges, learn from experiences, and remain open to new opportunities for growth and development. You will crush your first year, and the entire TRU community is happy to have you here.