Summer Prep for New Teachers

July 22, 2008

Painful as it may be to think about, the fall semester looms a month away. And so the season of panic and anxiety approaches for those teachers who will be entering the college classroom for the first time.

Many new faculty members and TA's have had some teaching experience or training by the time they face their first classroom of students. That is much more the case today than it was when I was a graduate student in the mid-1990s.

Still, in my conversations with graduate students and new faculty members around the country, I find a depressing level of inconsistency in the quality and quantity of guidance they have received from their departments, graduate schools, and institutions. That some Ph.D.'s and TA's walk into the classroom for the first time with no help or training at all is still far more common than many of us who write and speak about college teaching would like to think.

Whatever your level of classroom preparation, I offer here three exercises that any newcomer to the college classroom can undertake during the waning days of summer break.

The big picture. In the final weeks and days leading up to the semester, you are most likely to focus your anxieties on the little things — imagining that moment when you first walk into the classroom, thinking about what you will say, wondering how the students will respond and whether you will have remembered to zip your fly or check your teeth for spinach.

Like almost every other teacher in the world, you will probably have at least one or two anxiety dreams about the classroom. Mine, for some reason, always feature me as the student rather than the teacher: I've missed an entire semester's worth of calculus classes, and now I have to take the final exam. Then there's the classic naked-in-front-of-the-classroom version, among many others.

Nightmares about the practical matters of day-to-day teaching are, typically, a reflection of the fear that you're not ready yet. Before you let those anxieties overwhelm you, step back and look at the big picture.

Ask yourself two questions: At the end of the course, what specific skills and knowledge do I want my students to have learned? And how will those skills and that knowledge benefit or improve their lives?

Your responses to those questions can help remind you why your discipline matters in the world. That can be easy to lose sight of when you're caught in the crushing time demands of the semester.

Equally important, your responses should help you determine the learning objectives of your course. Settling on those objectives will give you a better idea of how to organize the course and how to design assignments, major projects, and exams. So, for example, if you don't care about students memorizing facts from your discipline, then don't give multiple-choice exams that test for memorization. If you want students to develop the ability to translate complex ideas into prose fit for the public, then make them give presentations.

In other words, don't simply imitate or inherit assignments. Be sure that your assignments, projects, and exams are developing and reinforcing the big-picture skills and knowledge that matter to you.

Compare syllabi. Ask your new colleagues if they would be willing to share their syllabi. (If you're brand new, ask your chair.) Or search online for courses with posted syllabi. You will find at least one syllabus online for just about any course you can imagine.

Before I came to the liberal-arts college where I am an associate professor, I taught at a research university. The first syllabus I put together for a course in my subfield at my new college did not reflect any real changes from a syllabus I had used at my old university.

Just before the semester started, I showed the syllabus to my new chair. "Students here would not be used to doing quite this much reading in a course on the novel," she said to me gently. "You are, of course, free to assign as many novels as you want, but you might be facing an uphill battle with some of the students."

I took the hint, cut back the reading list, and learned an important lesson about the way that workload expectations can vary from one institution to the next.

Reading the syllabi of more experienced instructors at your institution might also help you foresee other challenges. Say you did so and found many policies regulating the use of laptops in the classroom. You would know that that's a common problem at your institution and that you should think about how to deal with it.

At my college, by contrast, such laptop policies would be wasted space on a syllabus. In eight years of full-time teaching, I have yet to see a laptop in a classroom.

Syllabi comparison can help you get a better handle on specific cultural and academic differences between your previous institution and your new one, or between your experiences as a student and what you will face as an instructor.

Trial run. Neither of the first two suggestions will help you alleviate your anxieties about opening day. And those anxieties can eat up lots of energy and space in your brain, so I don't want to ignore them. You can beat them back a little bit with two simple activities.

First, before the semester starts, visit the classrooms where you will be teaching. You are anxious because you are facing the unknown, so trimming away as many unknown elements from the situation as possible will reduce your fears.

Get in the classroom, walk around it, write something on the board, try the computer projector or the overhead machine, and make sure you are comfortable in the space.

I once heard a senior professor describe how, just before he started teaching a new course, he went to the classroom and walked once entirely around the perimeter, trying to make the space as familiar and small to him as possible. A presemester excursion into your classroom can accomplish the same objectives for you.

And as long as you're there, take a second step to alleviate your anxiety: Pretend it's the first day of class and practice your lecture or opening monologue. No doubt you'll spend a lot of time rehearsing it in your head, but 100 internal repetitions will not help as much as actually speaking the words aloud a few times.

Practicing aloud will help you remember more effectively what you have to say, reducing your reliance on notes or slides. A neurologist or psychologist can explain that better than I can — all I know is that if I speak my notes aloud once beforehand, I don't need the notes anymore when I actually get into the classroom.

Even if you do all three exercises, you'll still be anxious in the first week of the semester. No getting around that. And some nervousness can be a good thing if you can redirect it into an energetic performance.

But if all else fails and you still find yourself fretting away the days before your classroom debut, rent one of those classic movies that feature people breaking down in high-pressured situations: Albert Brooks sweating profusely as a first-time news anchor in Broadcast News or Richard Dreyfuss stammering and twitchy on a morning talk show in What About Bob?

If you're a sports fan, watch YouTube clips of Bill Buckner losing the 1986 World Series by missing a slow-rolling grounder, or maybe Chris Webber calling an illegal timeout in the 1993 NCAA basketball championship game.

Sure, you might stumble over your introduction, trip on the overhead projector, or lose your place during your opening lecture, but at least you won't wind up in Wikipedia for it.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English at Assumption College and the author of "On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching," published in May by Harvard University Press.