Thursday, March 28, 2013

How To Avoid Spending All of Your Time Teaching: Seven Tips for Efficient Teaching

Do you spend all of your time teaching?

For all professors, teaching is an important part of our job. However, for most professors, it is not the only important part of what we do. Most of us have other obligations and we risk putting those in jeopardy when we spend all of our time preparing for class and grading.

Me - teaching - in my first year on the tenure-track!

In a recent post, I explained that I spend about six hours a week preparing for each class I teach. As a caveat, I will say that number is a guesstimate, and the number of hours varies depending on the class.

When I teach a graduate-level seminar, I usually have to spend about four hours reading the book I assigned, another two hours taking notes on it, and another hour writing out discussion questions and reading students’ responses. In graduate seminars, I usually spend about five to ten minutes at the beginning of the class laying out the importance of the book to the field and then we spend the rest of the class engaging in discussion. Typically, I ask one student to lead class discussion each week.

When I teach an undergraduate class, the weekly readings usually only take me two hours or less, and I spend more time on grading and preparing PowerPoint slides. For undergraduate classes, I usually spend about 15 minutes of an hour-long class lecturing, and use the rest of the time for discussion and in-class activities.

I have been teaching university for about a decade, and usually teach classes on race, immigration, and sociological writing.

Here are a seven tips to avoid spending all of your time teaching.

Tip #1: Try to minimize new course preps.
Your ability to do this will vary by institution, but many administrators will find your suggestion that you teach no more than one new prep a year reasonable. Personally, I find one new course prep a year just enough to keep things interesting.

Tip #2: Teach classes as closely related to your research as possible.
If your research is on race, offer to teach a graduate seminar on race. When choosing the books, choose those texts you are grappling with in your own work. A graduate seminar should have the classics, of course, but students also need to be familiar with cutting-edge work in your field, and they will benefit immensely with hearing you talk about how you are engaging new ideas in your own work.

For undergraduate teaching, you also often can select readings that are closely related to your own work, and sometimes even pilot your own books or articles in class.

Tip #3: Keep lectures to a minimum.
I hope that all of your classes are not 300-student lectures – where lecturing may be the only option. However, if you have 60 students or less in the room, you should be able to engage students in discussion. For a 50-minute class, I usually lecture for about ten to fifteen minutes. I use this time to make it clear to students what topics they need to be paying attention to and what I hope to accomplish during the class period. Then, I move into discussion and group activities.

Tip #4: Find the schedule that works best for you and ask for it.
Some departments and universities are more flexible about scheduling than others. Knowing what teaching times are best for you is the first step towards getting an ideal teaching time. When works best for you?

In my first job, I was given a teaching schedule of 8am to 10am on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I taught at those times for the first year, and then asked to change. Over time, I have realized that the ideal teaching time for me is in the afternoon and that I prefer to teach my classes in three-hour blocks. Thus, I ask for this schedule, and, thus far, have been able to make a case for it.

Tip #5: Set aside specific times for class preparation and stick to them.
This semester, I am fortunate to have only one class that I teach on Wednesday afternoons. I read for class on Monday and Tuesday evenings. I prepare my PowerPoint slides from 10am to noon on Wednesdays, and finalize my notes and grade short papers between 2pm and 3pm when class starts. I use Thursday office hours to respond to student inquiries and to deal with other things related to teaching. Since I know I have time set aside for each of these activities, I rarely think about class outside of those times.

Tip #6: Engage the students in discussion from the first day of class.
As I said above, I rarely lecture, and when I do, my lectures are short. Once I have finished conveying information to students, I ask them a series of questions. My class preparation thus involves preparing a short lecture, and then preparing a list of questions to ask students. I go through the questions, asking them one by one. Sometimes it becomes clear that I need to clarify certain points, so I may move back into a brief lecture. Other times students may take class in a direction I had not anticipated, so I try and bring them around. Either way, a discussion-based class is more engaging and requires less preparation than preparing and practicing an hour-long lecture.

Tip #7: Use rubrics for grading.
Grading is another area that can be very field-specific. However, most fields allow for the use of rubrics to grade papers. I assign two five-page papers in each of my 45-student undergraduate classes, and use rubrics to grade them. The rubrics are straightforward and allow me to communicate effectively with students what points they are getting and what points they are missing. That way, I do not have to write extensive comments on their papers.

In fact, unless you are a language teacher, you should not line-edit your students’ work. And, even if you are a language teacher, this guide explains that you should only line-edit the first 20 percent and then let students do the rest of the editing themselves.

There you have it – my seven tips for being a more efficient teacher.

Although readers have often asked for this post, I have waited a long time to write it, in part because it seems a bit taboo to suggest that we try and minimize the amount of time we spend teaching. We are professors after all! On the other hand, I should say that I consistently get very high teaching evaluations and students regularly communicate to me that they learn a lot in my classes. On my most recent set of student evaluations, my teaching scores were an average of 6.7 out of 7. Student evaluations are only one measure of teaching success – but I thought I would share that with you as further evidence that you do not have to spend 40 hours each week preparing for one class for that class to be successful.

I recognize that these tips may be best suited to someone in a situation similar to mine – teaching in the social sciences at a large public institution. However, I imagine that any professor would find at least some of these suggestions helpful.

Let me know what works for you in your quest to be an effective and efficient teacher.

42 comments:

  1. You are so awesome! Such a lifesaver for me as a first year TT professor. You encourage me in all my hopes that I can do a good job while also enjoying the job and my nights and weekends! Thank you!

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    1. Thanks for your kind words, Jackie. I hope you have a great weekend.

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    2. Your suggestins are very interesting. I think, though, that for example, the institution where I teach asks me to teach more that 2 new courses at year, and sometimes 3, that makes preparation very hard.

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  2. Hey Tanya!

    A friend randomly shared your blog on facebook! Great to see this blog-- your tips apply to k-12 teachers too...great reminders! Thank you! FYI I sent you a request and message on facebook. Excited to take a closer look at your writing!

    Charla

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    1. How cool is that! Glad we are re-connected.

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  3. Wonderful advice. I especially liked the idea of lecturing and then asking questions.

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  4. This is not just a great topic, it's *the* topic for anyone who has to teach as well as research. Here are the tricks that helped me. When I really applied these, it made an enormous amount of difference to my productivity.

    1. Find the time of day when you're best at doing research stuff -- especially writing -- and save that time for research alone. For example, although I'm not a morning person, it's really in the morning hours that I can best concentrate on reading difficult literature or composing prose. That means that for me, the non-teaching days always start with my own work.

    2. Class prep expands to fill all the time it can. If I work on my own stuff from 9 am to 3 pm, then spend 2 hours doing prep, maybe another hour of reading in the evening, I will be fine for the next day's classes. (I teach discussion too.) If I start prepping at 9 am, I will prep until 5 pm. And then will be too tired to do research.

    3. This is still more a goal for me than an achievement, but try to grade papers in a minimum number of reads, and not to go overboard with comments.

    4. Type all my class lecture and discussion notes and keep them organized on my computer and in hard copy. When I teach the lesson again, I pull them out, edit and revise and add so as to reflect the class's ability and my own new thoughts on the matter, then print. It drastically cuts down on prep time when teaching a course for the second time.

    5. Recognize that over-prepping does not necessarily mean the class will be that much better. Often, the instructor will drown the students with all the information they've researched, when really they need to explore it on their own.

    6. Other prepping strategies: prepping a whole week's classes on Sunday (doesn't work for families, but man is it amazing to go to work on Monday knowing all the preps are done); prepping for the next day's classes after the last class of the day, thus leaving non-teaching days totally free for research.

    7. Thinking of research as the thing I do "for myself," and even on really busy days, trying to do a little something for me. Could be reading and taking notes on one article, compiling a little bibliography, editing a paragraph I've already read. It's psychologically good to know that even on a very full day, you've advanced one of your projects a bit.

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    1. Thanks for adding all of these great tips. I have tried most of them - except for preparing for classes well in advance. Sometimes, if we are reading a whole book over a couple of weeks in an undergrad class, I will sketch out those classes ahead of time to make sure I cover what I want to cover on the right days.

      And, yes, with grading - letting go can be hard. But, sometimes you just have to decide on a grade and move on!

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  5. Really Nice Article. But for many teachers it's very difficult to think out side the box. Since they target the exams and train the students to sit for the exams. But what I expect from my teachers are "How to face a question / out think in a flexible way with an open mind" No matter the subjects are Molecular biology even Literature" when teachers become flexible I don't think that they should be always in the class. They can simply avoid Spending All of Time for Teaching.
    Very Interesting Article. Good Luck!!!

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  6. Hi Tanya, I really love your blog! I always look forward to receiving your email with a new post.

    Do you have any tips for math professors where details and explaining math problems takes hours of prep time? How would you simplify that process? My mother-in-law works full-time and teaches on the side. It seems the prep work is overwhelming in her area of statistics. I see how stressful this is for her at different times of the semester.

    Thanks, Kellie

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    1. Kellie: I have never taught statistics. However, I can think of three pieces of advice that might work: 1) Be very organized with what you do so that you can reuse any materials that took a long time to prep. In my grad statistics classes, my profs had spent a lot of time getting the course together, but then they reused that material over and over again. 2) Try and do in-class activities as often as possible so that students can really learn the material hands-on and you can identify needs right in class. 3) Be realistic about what you can really cover in each class period and semester.

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    2. Hi Tanya, thank you so much for the info. I can't wait to share it with her. I think everything you suggested makes complete sense. Thanks again, Kellie

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    3. Maybe you can audiovideo record an explanation with the camera point on the piece of paper you are writing. Then you could upload (and recycle) several short "how to"s for common problems in your class.

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  7. Tanya, I love your blog and this post is very helpful. I'm wondering if you have any additional advice for those of us in a situation like mine. I teach in the English dept at a small college where I have a 4/4 load plus 1-2 summer courses, but am also expected to produce significant research and publication to get tenure. Service is also heavy and community service is required. I typically have 2-3 new preps per year, and every semester I have 3 preps total (2 sections of Intro to Lit/Comp and 2 other courses). (Next year I will have 4 new preps--there goes my summer!)

    Fortunately class sizes are small, usually around 20, which is wonderful. But because I am in English, all of my classes are writing-intensive and I'm expected to work extensively with students on their writing as well as on content, so the process of commenting on student papers is overwhelming. The level of student writing and reading comprehension is also a problem-- there are so many fundamental writing issues that need to be addressed in addition to issues of content. Often I spend 45 minutes to an hour per essay!

    I also have all my classes make weekly posts on the reading on online discussion forums and I feel obliged to comment on all of their posts to help them see where they've gotten something right or gotten off track in their interpretations of the texts. This is sort of like pre-writing for their essays, so I feel I need to check in with them. Obviously this significantly increases my workload, but if I don't require them to write responses to the readings, most students just don't do the reading at all. I try to use their posts as a basis for our in-class discussion, which does work fairly well and helps reduce my prep time as far as coming up with discussion questions.

    I've tried to cut down on the number of assignments, assign peer review rather than commenting on all the essay drafts myself, and I have cut down on class prep in some of the ways you mention--but I am always behind on grading and with 4 courses, there is never a week when I don't have either formal assignments in at least one of them, plus the short writing assignments for all of them, to grade. By the time I get through my teaching work each week, my brain is just fried and the research I so want--and need=-to do never seems to happen.

    Do you have any suggestions for streamlining the grading or prep process for these kinds of writing-intensive classes so that I have some time and energy left for my research--but without feeling that I am cheating my students? I love your theory of the 40-hour work week but I don't see how I could ever manage it, at least not at my current job. Even 50 hours at this point would feel like heaven to me! Thanks so much--I'm grateful for any ideas you might have!

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    1. I have a couple of thoughts on this:
      1) Talk to at least two of your colleagues and find out what they do. Are you assigning more papers than them? Providing more feedback? Doing more service?

      2) Using peer review is great. Have you tried in-class peer review?

      3) Can you speed up weekly response grading by using a yes/no grading system?

      4) Would it work for you to just line edit the first 20% of the paper or use another system - no more than ten suggestions per page?

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    2. Hi Lizzie - Have you considered staggering the deadlines for your students' papers? I teach writing-intensive courses - and even if they weren't supposed to be, they do turn out that way - so I rotate when students hand in assignments so I'm not overwhelmed. One way that I've done this is to divide the classroom into group - A, B, C etc. I then designate which weeks A students will hand in papers, and so on. That method has worked so well for me, I use it in practically all my courses, regardless of size. The other strategies that I use is to decide what I'm grading each paper for (like you, I could easily spend an hour on a paper) and to touch each paper only once (no additional comments or corrections, grade changes, etc. - mark, grade, done). Hope this helps.

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    3. Tanya, and Natalie--thank you both for these ideas! I definitely do have to talk more with my colleagues about what they are doing. I do have students do peer review in class and outside of class, but in class I often have trouble getting them to actually do the work--they end up just chatting. I like the idea of simplifying the grading for the weekly response posts--though I'm not sure yes/no would work, but maybe something more streamlined than what I do, which is write a paragraph (sometimes more) for each one. The problem is that if I treat these as their pre-writing, I feel obligated to give them feedback. And I definitely think I need to reduce the line-editing I do! My grad school mentor recently told me that she just puts a mark next to every line in which there is an error or an instance of awkward writing, and she tells her students they will need to find the errors by reading their essays out loud if they wish to revise them. I might try this and have revision conferences with them, instead of writing such extensive comments. Natalie--I LOVE the idea of staggering due-dates! I could definitely do this with the weekly reading responses, and perhaps with the formal assignments as well. I will definitely try this! And I do have to get better about second-guessing my grading, going back and changing grades after comparing papers, etc. That way madness lies! Thanks so much to you both.

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    4. Hi Lizzie, I am a graduate student and my advisor offers an interesting blended course where we meet 4 times a semester and then the remainder in online discussion. The nice thing is that we all have to answer by a certain time each week, but he responds on his own time too. There’s like 15 weeks and readings for each week. He will then require us to pick 4 times to submit a response paper 4-5 pages (one big final paper too). So the students can pick the times we do the work, so he’s not getting all the paper at once. I just thought I would mention it. I work full-time and have a career (I am aspiring art history and graphic arts professor), so it has been nice being able to have more flexibility for family and school work, while being able to do my own academic research. Good luck, Kellie

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    5. Building on these good suggestions: Online environments like Blackboard often let you do multiple choice quizzes so you could try that to verify that they've done the reading. Suggestions I've heard for comp grading, where you do need to help them with grammar, are to build a system of shortcuts on your computer and then grade/edit on the computer (so you'd have one sequence of keystrokes that would paste "Subject-verb agreement," one that would paste "word choice," etc, and once you learn your own system, go pretty quickly. Another is to create a numbered list of common errors and just write the number on the paper, attaching a list to every one.

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    6. Try peer evaluation by the students! Then, they can work with a partner (in class) and then come up with a good draft for you to read. Less grading for you.

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  8. Hi, Kellie--I would love to teach hybrid classes like that, and it sounds like it works very well. I've been discouraged from doing this by my chair, who says that those teaching online or hybrid courses tend to get lower scores on evaluations, which of course are crucial for tenure. But the tactic of having students choose which readings to respond to is a great idea--with undergrads I'm a little afraid they'd all wait until the last 4 weeks to do them, but I could make a sign-up schedule or divide them into groups. That would be much more manageable for me--and for them. Thanks!

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  9. Hello Tanya, I have the same contract you did when starting out at KU but I have two differences. a) I haven't taught my own class before b) I'm teaching one afternoon graduate class in a block and the other in two 75 minutes from 11 till 12:15, so T Th. (I believe you had M-W-F 50 minutes at first).I'm not sure if you had a course reduction option but the current Dean absolutely does not allow it so juniors are all on 2-2.I have flexibility over what I teach and when I teach though so after experimenting with this I can opt for two blocks instead in spring semester.
    My question is: were you able to get any research done your first semester? I can see how working everyday on research later on becomes a possibility but are the above hours still possible for the first year when you are developing the new courses as well?
    In revising my syllabi I am considering including group presentations toward the end but it depends on enrollment (it's capped at 60 I believe but 40 is the max it'd work for group presentations I think). I am wondering though, with you lecturing only 10 (for me it'd be 25-30 min of 75 min lecture), is it reasonable to still include short-answer (identification) and multiple choice midterm(s)? or would students complain that the instructor did not lecture enough (obviously tho the questions would be drawn from the textbook and readings and it's their responsibility to do them and ask for clarifications). I have also included smaller assignments like 1 page reaction papers and students coming up with 3-4 discussion questions on weeks they choose as part of the grade. Additionally I would do a review (or hold office hours for it).
    Also with respect to research, I have interest from an acquisitions editor for my dissertation-to-book ms.However, I only have until July (and with the move really until end of June) to work on revisions and will obviously not get the book ready for submission for first review. So in that case should I spend the first year revising the ms so I can submit by the end of summer 2014 or should I work on articles instead? or is it unreasonable to expect either other than turning r&rs around that are already in the pipeline?

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    1. I think it is reasonable for tests to derive primarily from the readings. I personally never give exams.

      I did get research done my first semester, although I had taught some version of the classes I was teaching.

      I would suggest trying to get articles out first - because it gives you a tangible sense of moving forward and because the responses you will get will help you think about your audience.

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  10. About hybrid courses, I have seen two syllabi for the course I'm planning to teach that allow that. One has them do an online simulation activity toward the final 4-6 weeks (but it's paid for by students and I am not sure if this would be allowed at my institution) and the other one is as you described above: half of the class is online with no final exam and students writing reaction papers, watching movies and commenting on bb. Tanya, have you ever taught hybrid courses and was it allowed at KU? or is it department-dependent (aka Chair's discretion). I know my Chair and a few others teach completely online courses during the summer..

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  11. I amazed with your tips.It it going to be very useful for teachers.Thanks for sharing your tips..
    Thesis Writing

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  12. Thanks for providing space


    Exam Confidence lead the way in delivering School Revision courses that are designed to give students the best chance of success in their exams.
    School Revision courses

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  13. Nice post !! i love your blogs it give a confidence valuable points are given thanks for posting

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  14. Hi Tanya,

    These tips are great. I was given an evaluation rubric by my chair (50-40-10), but it never occurred to me that I should be using that to break down my time. Thanks for making the first year on the TT a little clearer!

    Kat

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  15. I wish I could be allowed to implement tips 1, 2, and 4.

    I am curious about your comment, never giving exams. I would love not to in the current situation. What do you do and how do you justify it?

    I am not anti-exam but NCLB has ruined students for them; in the current atmosphere I find test design and grading to be somewhat useless no matter how skilled one is at either. I would rather be all project and so would the students but my colleagues will not allow it -- at least not so far. How do you justify for accreditation, assessment, etc., to people who believe in tests and are uncomfortable with projects because (they say) there are so many gray areas for grading and because (they say) they are hard to design and hard to prepare students to do?

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  16. Profacero: Where I work, we do not have that kind of oversight. Perhaps you do because you are teaching a language? Other than that, I am surprised you do.

    Instead of exams, I have weekly questions. Each week, students complete an in-class essay that basically is an essay question like you would find on an exam. Some weeks I grade them closely and some weeks I don't. It keeps students up to date on the readings and it allows me to be in constant communication about how they are doing.

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    1. Choice in teaching, it is because a curriculum has to be covered. I do not work on Spain, for instance, or on the middle ages, but someone has to teach those classes and in some years I am the only person on staff with any expertise in them at all. That means I cannot teach in field unless I want to teach an overload for free.

      Weekly questions, I do that in upper level courses, yes, although not in class every week. Hm. Would love to do that in language courses but dean says we all have to give 2 midterms, 1 final, no exceptions.

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    2. ... ah, and it's also staffing issues that make it hard to limit new preparations. It would be nice to just have one a year, but if you have majors who are taking as many as 4 upper level courses with you per year (two per semester) for two years, they you have to give eight different upper level courses every two years so they can graduate on time. As the curriculum and student interests change, one may or may not be able to reuse a course developed before.

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    3. That is crazy the Dean requires 2 midterms and a final. There are many different ways to assess students.

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    4. It is at least better than chapter tests. There are a lot of faculty who won't assign writing because they aren't on board with the concept of a grading rubric, don't have confidence to use, want "objective" exams. Students prefer this as well, one right answer, etc., no gray areas, and they are the customers and the non PhD faculty are the most valuable players, so with the dean's office supporting these two groups there really is nothing one can do.

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  17. i just found your blog and it is AWESOME!!! as someone who just finished phd coursework and is overworked teaching too many classes, these tops are fantastic!

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  18. Thanks you for share with us your experience :)

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  19. This article is a godsend! I am a recent graduate and am teaching my first full load this upcoming semester with 4 new course preps. I feel like I am going crazy and keep wondering how I can possibly fill 45 50-minute classes for each course. The idea of lecturing roughly 15 mins per class is brilliant and takes an enormous load off.

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  20. Would you be willing to share your grading rubric for papers? While I'm in a different discipline (literature/language), I imagine there's quite a bit of overlap for undergrad writing - and I'm really interested in seeing how others frame expectations and quantify what we're looking for.

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  21. When I started teaching tenure-track (many years ago), I taught 4-4 and the courses each met for 4 hours a week, not 2 1/2. 6 new preps the first year, 4 the next. 12 hour work days were the norm, 7 days a week. Thank God those days are over! Eventually, course prep gets easier as you have so much in your head. Hang in there!

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  22. tanya, you have a very wonderful style of writing. i found your articles very useful. they are so easy to understand and even to follow. best wishes.

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  23. How I wish I had read this post three years ago when I was just beginning to teach at this level! Thank you for such practical, thoughtful advice.

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