So now you’re a teacher…

Image by Flickr user krossbow. Used under CC license.

I recently participated in Emory’s teacher training program, which is intended for all of the Graduate School’s students immediately before they begin teaching for the first time. One of the mini courses that I taught several times over the three days that the program runs was titled “What I wish I’d known.” The idea was that two current graduate students and myself (as a fairly recent graduate who had continued teaching at the school) would share insights that we had gained in the process of teaching and hopefully spare others from learning the same lessons the hard way.

Teaching is a difficult thing to talk about before you’re actively engaged in it. That means it’s doubly difficult to take advice from someone you don’t know before you’re doing it. Nevertheless, here’s some of what I told them:

  • Your students will believe you are the teacher. When I started teaching, I felt very insecure. I was only one year out of my undergraduate work, and I was worried that the students wouldn’t take me seriously as a person that should be at the front of the classroom. What I found was that my students were willing to accept me as the teacher. I sat at the front of the class. My name was listed in the course catalog. They didn’t challenge me, and while I wasn’t especially good at first, they didn’t rise up in open rebellion. That’s not what they’re looking for. (N.B. It’s worth noting, of course, that I’m a white male. Unfortunately who you are in person [as well as online] can affect how this does play out. In talking with colleagues, however, most everyone has had the same experience of students accepting them as a teacher.)
  • Don’t be afraid to use your youth. While you might not yet know as much as that senior person in your field, most graduate students have another advantage in being closer in age to their students. You will be able to communicate differently and more effectively with your students by using shared experiences. Of course, this is a tool that can cut both ways, but don’t see your age and relative inexperience only as liabilities.
  • Decide ahead of time what you want your students to call you. My first semester teaching, I didn’t do this. The students were never really sure what they should call me: they knew I wasn’t “Dr.,” and weren’t sure what I was. The result was that they often had to catch my eye and address me as “you” to avoid confronting the problem. As you decide whether you want them to call you by your first name, a generic adult title (Mr., Ms.), or even “Professor” (which I think is acceptable for graduate students who, after all, are professing in the classroom, but I realize that’s this is perhaps an idiosyncratic view), just choose something that will make you comfortable. And then let them know.
  • Check out your classroom before the first day of class. Along with deciding what you’ll want your students to call you, you should examine your workspace before the first day of class. Is there a blackboard? A whiteboard? A projector? What is seating for the students like? Can it be rearranged? Is there already chalk/whiteboard markers in the room? If not, who is responsible for having them?
  • Always carry your own supplies. Even if you aren’t responsible for the chalk or markers, have your own with you. You don’t want to waste time in class because you don’t have the right tools. You’ll only end up feeling rattled, and that’s not good for your teaching.
  • Type your lesson notes/plans. I didn’t have a laptop when I started teaching, and I wrote out my lesson plans in longhand on the backside of scrap paper. While this was environmentally conscious, the result was that when I’ve wanted to reuse material from these courses subsequently that I have had to dig through a significant pile of paper. If you type everything up, then you’re only a CTRL-F away from finding everything you’ve ever done.
  • After class, take 10 minutes to write how class went. You’ll undoubtedly have done something different than you’d planned on doing. Since it isn’t in your notes, you’ll likely forget about it when you teach this course again in three years. If it went well, write it down. If it didn’t, write it down. What questions of the ones you planned flopped and which ones worked? While doing this takes time, it will be time saved when you come back to these notes for future classes. I started doing this just this past semester, and it has already been the best thing I’ve done for my teaching in two years.
  • Get observed early and often. While you reflect on what you think went well in your classroom, you will benefit from getting others’ opinions. Invite someone from your cohort in to watch you teach and to tell you what you did well and–gulp–what didn’t work out. Even better, ask your adviser or another faculty member in to watch you. Not only will s/he give you feedback about your teaching, but you will have provided them with the material that s/he needs to write a better letter of recommendation.
  • Never speak to parents. Even when everyone tells you that you’re doing great in the classroom, your students might feel otherwise. Hopefully you will never have a parent call you to talk about his or her darling’s C- in your class. But if you ever do, know that it’s illegal to do so. If the parent insists on speaking with someone, point them to your department chair or director of undergraduate studies. That’s what they’re there for. Seriously.
  • Become familiar with your school’s honor code and/or plagiarism policies. My experience shows that each school has very different procedures around these issues, and you want to be preparedif you catch students not obeying the school’s rules. Again, the chair of your department or the director of undergraduate studies should be a good resource for understanding what you should do.
  • Good pedagogy often involves theft. While we’re on the subject of plagiarism, I should add that effective teaching frequently involves adapting or stealing outright someone else’s great assignment, classroom activity, or even–on occasion–lecture notes. Just be willing, then, to allow others to benefit from what you’ve learned while teaching.

So if teaching is the penny jar of academia, what advice would you leave for those graduate students that are about to start teaching for the first time?

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