Teaching for the first time is an overwhelming experience. Standing on the opposite side of the classroom in a university and being responsible for not only the material that is taught but also the direction in which an entire course proceeds can seem daunting. Having taught various levels of English to different class sizes for a number of years, I thought I was prepared for the experience. Teaching at the university-level, however, was another enterprise altogether. Based on conversations I have had since, I thought it would be useful to write-up a list of "lessons learned" to help other newcomers, especially graduate students, in approaching the adventures of first-time teaching.
Background: What follows are a set of tips and suggestions based on my experiences from teaching an entry-level, survey history course at the American University in Cairo during the spring of 2016. That course, "Survey of Arab History," covered the history of the Arab world from just before the coming of Islam until the present moment. I was given fairly free range to make decisions about course content and class design, although my syllabus was checked over by a couple of the department's senior faculty (something you should do, even if it's not required). My class had about 25 students from various levels. You can find a copy of the syllabus, here: SYLLABUS.
A well-developed syllabus and class-design are critical for success - This may seem like a no-brainer, but I cannot emphasize enough the importance of thorough planning in developing the syllabus and course. For a seasoned faculty member, this may be less important - I don't know - but for a new-comer, very few things are more critical than this. The more time spent developing the class syllabus and design, the more organized and comfortable you'll be 3/4 of the way throughout the semester. Once I developed a detailed syllabus and class plan, I stuck to it as closely as possible. This really helped me to stay on track and move from week to week. In a survey course covering 1500 years of history, taking time to plan the class well allowed me to try to decide what material was important and needed attention and what wasn't. Laying out clear and thorough expectations for the students also is invaluable when hiccups appear. If everything is clear and laid out at the beginning, the course has a much more solid foundation throughout. A few extra points:
- Be ambitious and set high goals, but also be realistic. There are real constraints on what you can do in one course. If you seek to do too much, time will work against you. That said, be ambitious and strive to reach goals. Even if you don't accomplish everything, the class will be richer for the effort.
- Although you want to have as much structure and planning as possible at the outset, you have to also leave room for change. Sometimes things don't go as planned, the students are super excited about a topic and want to know more, or simply weather or political events cause a cancellation. Whatever the situation, sometimes you will fall behind or something will happen requiring change. Be flexible and then get back on track.
- Define objectives in the syllabus for what you want the students to learn and achieve. If you do this first, then you can plan the rest of the class accordingly. As my semester went on, I found it was helpful to read these objectives to myself before organizing my notes and plans for the next class session. Continually returning to the course objectives will help you to stay focused on the task at hand. Ask yourself, "am I meeting the goals I set for the course?". In my case, one of my objectives was for the students to gain exposure to primary source material. As the course moved along, I realized I had been putting less and less emphasis on this objective. Because I continually made mental refreshers of the class objectives, however, I was able to spot the deviation and make an effort to correct the problem.
- Similarly, it is important to identify key themes which frame the course. In my case, I did this mentally but on a number of occasions lost sight of these main ideas. When this happens, the class sessions start to feel like a collection of separate ideas strung together. Having a few main themes gives a structure to the course and helps to integrate separate classes together making them add up to a larger whole. Having this in the syllabus is very helpful, and rereading these themes before planning lectures can help you to think about where each class's material fits into the bigger picture of the course. Finally, referring back to the themes in class lectures can help the students understand why each class's material matters and how what they are studying is adding up to complete a larger story.
Assume that teaching will take a lot of time, then double it - No matter how much time I thought planning, teaching, grading, and readjusting my course material would take, more was required. Teaching a course for the first time, especially as a new teacher, is extremely time-consuming. Things go wrong, plans change, something needs adjusting, students want to meet, grading is monotonous; plan accordingly. If you work by blocking off increments of time in your schedule for different tasks like I do, double the space required for your course. This is especially important during your first weeks of instruction and in allotting time to grading the first exam. On a positive note, this gets better with time and as you develop a rhythm and system. I especially recommend dedicating the time that you are required to use for office hours for completing miscellanea for the class itself. In my experience, students rarely used the office hours, and they were a great time to get things done for the course.
Logistics matter - The size of my class fluctuated during the first week of the semester before it finally reached its capacity at twenty-five. Having a classroom that comfortably fits everyone, with enough desk space, was an issue. Our class size did not justify having a bigger room, however students from other classrooms would often take tables and chairs. This meant that my students sometimes were cramped and this was especially a problem on test days. Getting to class early and asking early-arrivers to help in setting up the room and "stealing" back tables and chairs made life a lot easier. But sometimes chairs and tables from other rooms were not available. I don't remember this being an issue in my days as an undergrad in the US, but it certainly was at AUC. In any case, the key take-away is in making certain that the room is appropriate for the class size and that everyone is comfortable. If not, students get distracted more quickly and the class experience diminishes.
Arrive early - This should go without saying. But if you are late for class as the instructor, the students will really take liberties with their own arrival time going forward. Plan on being at class at least five to ten minutes early. This gives you a chance to check the number of desks and chairs, ensure that the projector is working, organize your notes, and to be relaxed at the start of class. I also found that this was a great time to chat with students informally, but within the structure of a classroom environment. As a young instructor, this allowed me to maintain a professional space while also getting to know my students. Additionally, if you feel rushed at the start of the class, it will negatively affect your performance. Be there early, and take your time. Additionally, expect that students are on time. At AUC, we take attendance. I found that by doing attendance immediately students feel compelled to arrive on time in order to not be counted absent. Regardless, if you allow students to be a minute or two late at the beginning of the semester, it will turn into ten minutes by the middle.
Always defer to the university's policies - It may seem obvious, but check and stick to the university's policies regarding absences, plagiarism, cheating, and grading. You may be able to get away with setting your own rules as an experienced professor, but as a young instructor, it is extremely important that your guidelines match those established by the university. When a problem does arise, having the weight of the university's policies behind you removes a lot of headache, shuts out arguments, and makes life easier.
Learn your students' names early on and take an interest - Learning your students' names shows you care about having them in your classroom and makes things easier when associating a graded assignment with the in-class performance of a particular student. I only taught one section with a relatively small class size, and this obviously made the task easier. But when possible, make the effort. Additionally, learning about your students' interest really makes a difference when helping them select research topics and in tailoring class material to the audience. I had a high number of engineering and architecture majors, so when we talked about topics involving art and architecture, I tried to find blueprints of the monuments we were discussing. Similarly, for my political science students, I always tried to tie historical developments with current events and political theory. Relating the material to their interests made a noticeable difference in the interest that the students showed in class.
Assume nothing about your students' background knowledge - In an introductory survey class, especially, it is important to assume that the students are coming with no prior knowledge on the topic. Some students may have some background, but everyone will be at different levels. Furthermore, what students think they already know about a topic may not jive with the reality of the course's objectives and themes. Assume that you are starting tabula rasa and proceed from there.
Balance proficiency with critical thinking when designing tests - One of the biggest challenges I found in teaching my first course was in designing tests that accurately tested what the students learned alongside how they thought critically about the material. To test proficiency, I made sure to ask questions that had objective and correct/incorrect answers. Knowing who did what, when, and where - the facts of an event - form the foundation of the material that students must know for studying history. Understanding key terminology and testing those definitions is also necessary. That said, it is more important to make sure that students can analyze and think critically about the material they have learned. Short answers and essay questions allowed me to do this. Rereading the course objectives and themes is a good way to think about questions when writing an exam and helps to make sure you are accurately measuring whether students are meeting the benchmarks you set for the course. Finally, when grading the tests, I always made a key in which I wrote down what main points a "perfect" answer would include. By doing this, I was able to gauge how well the student answered a short answer or essay by making sure that they hit the main ideas for which I was looking.
PowerPoints and multimedia are great, but don't over-rely on them - I found that using PowerPoints was a great way to include visual aids as well as to keep on target and have a focused lecture. That said, in the beginning of the semester, I used them quite a lot and posted them for the students. If you over-rely on them and make them too accessible, the students quickly learn to wait for your PowerPoints and use them in the place of notes. So use PowerPoints, if it works for you, but sparingly. This same point goes for other forms of multimedia like music and documentaries. I think using other multimedia definitely enlivened my class and the material, but over-using the material takes away from the themes and narratives you are trying to construct throughout the semester. The course belongs to you and the students. Bringing in a third party (music, videos, documentaries, food, etc.) can be helpful but distracts and takes away from the classroom if used in large doses.
Not everyone cares - This is an especially hard lesson for people whose whole lives revolve around a certain subject matter. However, it is not just that some students don't care about the material you are teaching, some simply don't care about being a student. Sometimes reaching out to the student can make a difference. Perhaps they are taking subject for the first time and based on preconceived ideas or intimidation with the material, they have pulled back. In this case, a little extra effort on your part might make a difference. Other times, the students just don't care, and there is nothing you can do. One of my students was quite polite but was struggling with the material and seemed to have a bit of trouble with English (almost all of my students were ESL). For a number of classes, I made an effort to pay attention to the student's performance and to talk with him privately after he missed an assignment. After reassurances that things would turn around, nothing changed. I later found out that the student had low grades in all of his coursework, including his major; and I realized that no additional effort on my part would have made the difference. The point is to make an effort, but realize that not everyone cares and live with it.
Show unrelenting passion - Regardless of whether students show interest or not, be unrelentingly passionate about your subject matter. Presumedly we all went into academia because we deeply care about what we work on. Show that passion in the classroom and be enthusiastic. The single greatest reward that I received at the end of the semester was hearing from a number of students that my course made them think differently about history and that it was the first time they enjoyed a history class. If you are passionate, it rubs off on the students and changes the dynamic of the class. This is one of the opportunities we have as academics to share our excitement about our field, have fun and you may inspire others to be care too.
When you don't know something, say it - There were a few times over the course of the semester that I couldn't answer a student's question, but I always tried to find out. When you're in this situation, be honest, tell them you'll find out, and then do it. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it also shows the student you care about the interest he/she is taking in your course. However, if this happens frequently, you're probably not preparing well enough for class.
Reflect regularly; seek feedback - At the end of each class, take time to think about what worked and what didn't. I found it helpful to write these reflections down and then to review them to see if I was making progress. Additionally, seek feedback from the students at regularly intervals. You might not necessarily follow their opinion, but maybe they see something you're missing. I also found it good to talk to the students about what I thought was going well and what we needed to work on as a class. They participated in discussing these issues more than I had assumed. Not only did this exercise help to build trust and communication, but it also let the students know how we were progressing collectively apart from the individual feedback they received from me on their exams and during office hours.
Seek a mentor - In my case, I was lucky to have had longstanding relationships with a number of the senior faculty in my department from my days of being a graduate student. Running ideas by those with more experience helped me to wrinkle out and refine some of the things I did in class. Giving them scenarios and asking them what they would do let me see what "best practices" they had developed in their much longer and deeper experiences teaching. If you're not as fortunate to have these kind of relationships, you should actively seek out a mentor. Profiting from their experiences will make your first time teaching richer and more valuable, and it will reflect in the classroom.
Finally... Believe in what you are doing and its value. If you don't, why should your students?