The Interruption Conundrum

I love assistant teaching (and lead teaching for that matter), but in some ways, Emily as a teacher looks like a mismatch. For one, I’m not the most extroverted person in the world. For another, I dislike trying to get others to do what they don’t want to do. And lastly, I usually aim to avoid interruptions as much as possible.

Constant interruptions drive me a bit bonkers during the day with my young children, so I am loath to interrupt others in turn. Also, I’m quite aware of the cognitive burden of language learning and how unhelpful it is to have insufficient time and/or concentration to apply to related tasks.

The way second hour of class is usually run, my most common task as the assistant is to circulate and help as needed as the students work individually or in pairs.

But what does “as needed” mean? When they wave me over? When they make a confused face? When I look over their shoulder and see they’re having trouble? Or when I ask?

Where do I draw the line between taking the initiative and being a pest?

To interrupt, or not to interrupt?


I’ve come to a conclusion that works for me, but it’s not indisputable and wouldn’t work in every setting.

My conclusion is to go ahead and interrupt.

This is partly because when I tried out patiently waiting by the wall for someone to call me over, I did a whole lot more waiting than was probably ideal, especially at first. And when someone finally did ask me something, it was kind of awkward because they didn’t want to ask for help and it wasn’t really clear to them who I was or if I could help. Building rapport took a really long time.

When I felt strongly enough that the Wall Waiting method wasn’t working, I tried a different approach: I dove in. Down each row, interrupting each person to ask how I could help, multiple times each session.

Remember how I’m not the world’s most extroverted? I think of this in my head as “crowd surfing,” because every time, it feels like a big leap of faith.


It’s worth it. The results are that my students know and trust me, and that I catch problems before a lot of time is wasted. And because of that rapport and work experience together, they are willing to flag me down.

Philosophy of Interruption

Even though my practice of interrupting is working well in my current setting (in Maryland community college in night classes focused on academic writing), to me it’s very important to have a philosophical guideline to go by as well.

On the surface, it doesn’t make sense for an introverted person who values deep work and dislikes being interrupted to interrupt her students with zeal for hours every week.

But there’s more going on. Ages ago I wrote about the benefits of college writing courses, and I think I was right. Also, students are supposed to do a significant amount of work outside of class. I shouldn’t fall prey to the fallacy that just because that work is invisible to me, it doesn’t exist.

The fact is that class time is just one facet of their learning time, and it’s much better suited for interaction than for uninterrupted concentration regardless of me.

My current philosophy of interruption:

Working with each other and with teachers is one of the major benefits of face-to-face in-class time.

It’s more important for students to make the most of their limited time to interact with us during class than to concentrate deeply during class.

Students can and should work at home or at the library for uninterrupted study time.

It’s been a cycle of philosophy leading practice leading philosophy, and this is where I’ve ended up for now. Crowd surfing. There is some method to my madness – coming up on Thursday.

Photo Credit: musicisentropy on Flickr

You’re reading The Interruption Conundrum, originally posted at

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