10 Things I Learned From Teaching English to Non-English Majors

Last fall my school’s English department began a Graduate Teaching Assistant program, which allowed graduate students to teach an English 103 class all by themselves. 

What a great opportunity! I thought, I’m in! 

I didn’t know what I was in for. Standing there on my first day of school as a teacher, I felt like I wanted to slink away and go back to bed (I thought only students felt that way – apparently teachers can too). Of course I wasn’t allowed to do that, so on that first day I faced my class of 19 students and discovered that none of them were English majors. I had a lot of Business, a lot of Film, a few Bio, but absolutely zero English majors.

This made me kind of sad and a little scared – how was I supposed to teach English to others who might not value it in the same way I do?

But when I pushed through my fear, I discovered that even though my job was to teach others, I wound up learning a lot myself – not only about teaching, but about English too!

The semester had many ups and downs, but by the end of it I knew that the experience was valuable, not only for my students but ultimately for myself. Teaching might not be for everyone, but here are ten valuable things I learned while trying to teach English to non-English majors:

1. Writing is hard for everyone.

I expected that my students would struggle with writing, but I also had a hard time creating responses and assignments myself. It’s one thing to identify a grammar mistake; it’s another thing to explain it to someone else. All of us – my students and I – definitely had to struggle with writing in order to make it work for us last semester. 

2. Creating assignments is just as hard as doing them—and may actually be even harder.

Writing an essay prompt is a lot harder than you’d think! There are many aspects to consider: prompts should be rigid enough to be clear, but open enough to give students freedom; they should be short enough to leave room for interpretation but long enough to fully explain expectations – and those are just a few of the requirements of a good prompt. It’s hard writing assignments, and I’m surprised that writing a prompt isn’t a regular assignment itself (Hey! That’s a good idea for next time).

3. You should read the syllabus.

Often when a student would ask a question, I’d point them back to the syllabus or assignment sheet. When a student would miss an assignment I’d be confused, because not only was it often announced in class and online, it was also ultimately found in the syllabus.

I totally understand now why teachers stress reading the syllabus before asking any questions; many of them (including myself) put a lot of hard work into organizing the class, and this can be reflected in the very syllabus you receive at the beginning of the school year. It’s a valuable resource that teachers create especially for you – use it!

4. Your major has nothing to do with how well you write.

As I mentioned, none of my students were English majors, but I was absolutely delighted to see how many of them were already great writers. By the end of the semester I respected every major in that classroom, and I really appreciated how students of different majors provided unique perspectives in their assignments and during class discussions.

5. It’s amazing to see writers grow.

I was absolutely amazed to see how some students progressed through the semester. Even I know I wasn’t the best teacher, but my students really put in the effort, and by the end of the semester I was floored by how well some of them could write. 

6. Teaching English is a great way to learn English.

It’s a well-known fact, but if you want to learn something, try teaching it to someone else. I found myself learning so much about English while teaching it because it required me to be able to fully understand and articulate concepts like grammar and analysis. Working as a tutor or a teacher is great practice for English majors – it’ll really help you understand the intricacies of the language better. 

7. Most teachers grade to help you improve, not to make you feel bad.

I really detested giving out grades lower than a C, and by the end of the semester I was tempted to just give everyone As because I knew they were putting good effort in. After getting to know my students and grading their work, I know now that grades should considered a way to see areas you can improve, not as final, personal judgements. 

I know there are many teachers out there who probably do have hidden agendas behind their grading system, but I also know from my own experiences that at the end of the day, I gave out low grades because I knew my students could do better and I wanted them to know how. I think this is why it’s incredibly important to read your teachers’ comments on your papers if they give them, or even ask why a grade is what it is if you’re not sure. If your teacher is an honest grader (and many are), then a C doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person; it more likely means that your skills can improve.

8. Teachers want to help you—let them!

Teaching keeps you very busy, but I always made sure to give help to those who asked. In fact, I was really excited when people took my offers to meet with them outside of class to discuss essays or projects. I’d never be able to develop helpful relationships with my students unless they also made an effort to talk to me and let me know their needs. 

It never hurts to talk to your teachers one on one and make sure they know what you need – chances are, they really want to help you. 

“To all teachers out there: thank you. Your hard work and care for your students are an undeserved blessing.”

9. Teachers don’t get paid enough.

There is absolutely no way I would’ve been able to live off of the salary I received that semester, and I can’t even imagine what it’s like for adjunct professors who have to teach not one, but five classes just to be able to make ends meet. The ratio of work put into teaching to how much compensation teachers actually receive is staggeringly uneven; I still can’t figure out how teachers have the patience and the skill to navigate students, planning, and other academic work on the lowest salary imaginable.

To all teachers out there: thank you. Your hard work and care for your students are an undeserved blessing. 

10. Teachers are only human.

Teaching is an incredibly hard job: incredibly rewarding, but incredibly hard, and as much as I wanted to make sure every student got the attention, lesson plan, and learning style they needed, I simply didn’t have enough time to cater to everyone’s needs. I could only do my best to make sure I taught as clearly as possible – the actual act of learning, however, was ultimately up to my students.

Teachers are only human, after all, and I believe that treating them as respectfully as possible can really result in some great learning. 


Tami Orendain has a B.A. in English, an M.A. English, and pretty much just really likes English. A reader from an early age, she chose English on a whim on her college applications, and discovered that what was just a quick checkmark on a list of majors soon became a lifelong passion. With an interest in helping others discover the joys of reading and writing, Tami has worked as both a teacher and a tutor, and currently heads content for the online magazine DisneyExaminer to help others realize how important English is in modern culture. Her literary interests range from 18th century British literature to modern YA lit and beyond, and when not reading or writing she can often be found serving at her local church, exploring libraries, or watching cartoons (current favorite: Avatar: The Last Airbender). Feel free to feel free to view her portfolio and contact her at emtami.wordpress.com

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Posted on September 7, 2016 and filed under Articles, Featured Articles.