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The Benefits of Teaching During the MFA

Updated: Jan 28, 2019

You don't have to be a starving artist while earning your Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in creative writing. A great option is to teach undergraduate writing classes while earning your degree.

At the heart of the importance of teaching is the consistent paycheck. I'm not a money-driven person, but during my first year in the MFA program at Rutgers University-Camden, the approximately $5,000 I made per class per semester (I taught one class per semester) as a part-time lecturer (PTL) was enough to supplement the savings I had prior to entering the program. That money allowed me to pay my tuition and cover expenses without having to take a second job. That money allowed me to dedicate my time to my classes and my writing, as anyone pursuing any graduate degree should be able to do.

Before my second year, I was awarded full-funding. That meant I received tuition reimbursement (I paid $0 for tuition during my final year) and I received a generous full-time salary of about $26,000 to teach one or two classes per semester. The package also came with other perks thanks to being a full-time employee, such as health insurance.

$26k isn't life-changing money, and many would argue that it isn't adequate pay for the work provided (and it'd be hard to disagree), but I managed that money well and again did not need to take a second job in order to cover expenses. From my one-bedroom apartment, to food, entertainment, and everything, I was 100% financially independent (okay, I'll admit that my parents covered my phone bill and car insurance, but I could have afforded those expenses too if my parents weren't such generous people). In fact, I saved money during my time at Rutgers-Camden, something in the range of $5k. That's not to brag about being frugal. That's to say that obtaining full-funding is an important piece of the MFA puzzle, especially if money is tight.

There are some programs that offer full-funding without requiring you to teach, or at least to not teach every semester that you're a part of the program, but those programs are rare. By and large, if you're receiving full-funding while earning your MFA, the trade-off is that you've got to teach.

That's a good thing, though, because teaching was a valuable piece of my MFA experience.

That's mostly true because I'm a young, early career professional. The job experience mattered for me, being someone with few job experiences lasting more than six months. Unless you're in a similar position, or you want to transition to teaching, you may not view teaching as all that valuable. A lot of the perceived value of an MFA and what you're willing to pay or not pay to obtain one comes back to your personal objectives, financial situation, and what you're willing to put up with (which is in reference to anyone who may not enjoy teaching but might have to teach in order to receive that coveted full-funding).

At Rutgers-Camden, I got to teach one or two classes of freshman composition per semester for two years. Freshman composition (Comp) is the intro-level class you probably took freshman year where you read a book or two and learned how to write for college. It's not an inherently fun class for students, especially those who had competent high school English teachers, but it was a great opportunity for a young professional such as myself to gain valuable, consistent experience.

Do note, however, that not every MFA program limits its student teachers to only Comp. In fact, several of my peers got to teach creative writing classes, whether for fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. The specific opportunities vary from program to program, and even from MFA candidate to MFA candidate within programs, so do your research if you think you'd like to teach.

Teaching creative writing classes isn't necessarily the Holy Grail, though. I thoroughly enjoyed teaching Comp, and found that it allowed for creative, innovative pedagogical strategies. While the English department at Rutgers-Camden provided a solid structure for the classes, which was largely appreciated, they also took a hands-off approach, allowing every teacher to make their individual classroom their own.

For example, the English department required certain assignments to be completed by every Comp class, and for certain books to be read, but every teacher was granted the flexibility to make of those assignments what they wished. As such, the final essay in my class could look different from the final essay in another class, so long as both essay assignments met the same basic objectives. For further clarification, some teachers required students to publish essays online, such as on a Tumblr page or WordPress site, while other teachers found it more productive for students to simply work within the confines of a general word processor. The consistent and unspoken wisdom uniting us all was, 'to each his or her own.'

That flexibility was extremely valuable. As a young teacher, I had my own classroom and felt empowered to get creative with lesson plans, assignments, my syllabus, in-class motivational techniques, grading parameters, and more. Every step of the way, the English department encouraged us to make our classrooms our own individual spaces, allowing us to become the teachers we wanted to be, and, more importantly, allowing us to be leaders for our students in the ways we deemed appropriate.

That's a double-edged sword, of course, but there's a lot to be said for the value of trusting young, ambitious employees, and how such empowerment can lead to better overall growth. I, for one, always felt that having the room to make and own my mistakes (learn by doing) was what allowed me to grow as both a teacher and a professional in the fastest, most valuable ways.

Of course, trusting young teachers only works with the proper support system in place. My first semester, all new teachers were required to take a practicum together. In practicum, we studied pedagogical strategies, talked out classroom problems, and provided a much-needed support system for each other, all under the guidance of the head of the First Year Writing Program.

After that first semester, I always had people I could rely on for support, whether I needed ideas for lesson plans, strategies to deal with students, or ways to improve the quality of student assignments. I was never told, 'This is the Rutgers-Camden way and you must be this kind of teacher!' Instead, I was consistently and appreciatively told, 'Look, here's what you absolutely need to do, but do it your way, and support is here whenever you need it.'

In addition to the actual teaching, the English department made a concerted effort to collect feedback from students. That meant that each semester I received feedback on my performance, allowing me to improve and change my methods as necessary. Every semester I found myself evolving and growing from my mistakes, but also reinforcing my strengths. Over the course of two years, I morphed from a naive teacher into a confident teacher. I went from an ambivalent professional to a consistent professional. There were plenty of bumps along the way, and I still have a ton to figure out, but the speed at which I grew, and the quality of that growth, is largely attributable to how the English department at Rutgers-Camden empowered me, such as through providing student feedback.

The student feedback from my teaching has also been a great piece of quantitative evidence to bring to interviews in order to showcase my job performance. Teaching, like most professional pursuits, is a competitive field, and when you can bring hard evidence of your good efforts to the table it helps so much. It's one thing to bring an anonymous student essay or two to showcase how well you helped students learn to write, but it's another thing entire to definitively demonstrate, 'Hey, look at how much my students enjoyed my teaching. Look, in their own words, at how valuable they found their experience with me.' That's the special sauce.

My teaching experience while earning my MFA changed me, improved me, and allowed me to walk away from my MFA program with something tangible by which to better sell myself on the professional marketplace. I'll be forever grateful for that.

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