Teaching Your First Class

Teaching Your First Class

Teaching as a graduate student can be a fulfilling way to engage with the content you care about and can also provide some much needed cash. This role is rewarding, but it is also challenging, especially if this is your first position as an instructor. Luckily, we have compiled ten tips to make the semester run a little bit smoother.

Observe a class

If possible, before you begin teaching, observe a class or even a few classes that are similar to yours. You do not need to copy the other instructors methods, but observing can help you get ideas for your own teaching style.

You can’t cover it all

A lot of the time, newer instructors will make it their goal to cover everything in the textbook and beyond. However, this is not a realistic goal for a typical three-credit undergraduate course and attempting to do so will likely detract from student learning. Rather than speeding through everything, find ways to cover the most critical parts of the material while giving students the opportunity to dive into the subjects that interest them most. This will lead to more learning and less surface level memorization and undue stress.

Take ownership for your course

Often, graduate student teachers do not select the textbook, create the syllabus or design assignments for the course. This may lead you to feel you need to explain to students why the department does the things that it does and why are you following the syllabus in a certain way. Instead of explaining these details to students, take full ownership of the course and they will have more confidence in your familiarity with the material, be more respectful of your authority, and feel more comfortable coming to you for help.

Start off on the right foot

The first day of class and the impression you make will be very influential in how the semester progresses. On the first day you may want to jump right into content, but you should first allow some time to introduce yourself and to set clear expectations for the course. If it is a small class you may also have students introduce themselves to you or if it is a lecture, consider allowing time for students to introduce themselves to those sitting around them.

Have a plan for inappropriate student behavior

To be frank, as a graduate student your students may try to test your authority more than they would if you were an older professor. As a result, you should prepare yourself for how you will react when a student is acting up so that you are not caught off guard and can respond professionally. That being said, approaches to discipline can vary and you should develop a plan that feels right for you.

Be well prepared

Being prepared for classes will make you feel more confident in what you are saying and better able to explain things to students. Additionally, if you seem unprepared it will signal to students that they should question your authority and ability which will detract from the learning environment. Taking some time to refresh what you will be covering in class can go a long way in helping your delivery.

Help students make connections

Give students the opportunity to chat with classmates about coursework and encourage them to exchange contact information so that they can help each other with assignments rather than reaching out to you with every question. Of course you also want to be available, but having students collaborate can deepen their learning.

If you don’t know something, say so

You may think that as the instructor students expect you to have all of the answers. In reality, it is much more frustrating to students when instructors will not admit when they are wrong or when they do not know something and instead make something up or become defensive. If a student stumps you with a question, admit that you aren’t sure, write it down, and report back with the answer during the next class.

Address a lack of participation

If you are faced with a room full of faces staring blankly at you when you ask questions, it may cause your confidence to falter. Know that this is more than likely not a reflection on you and that students may be shy or confused. Rather than letting it derail you, consider having students chat in small groups to work out answers which may lead to greater participation. Additionally, don’t let a lack of participation at the beginning of the course deter you from asking students to engage as it can be truly powerful for their learning.

Set boundaries for your time

Teaching is an important role and you want to make yourself available to your students, but you also need to prioritize your research as well as your mental health. Your research needs to remain a priority over teaching even as you make your best effort to be effective.You should also build leisure time into your schedule where you are truly unplugged and doing something you enjoy. Be upfront with students about your availability in the beginning so they can plan ahead if they need help, but don’t feel obligated to respond 24/7.

Ask for feedback

It is a good idea to ask your students for feedback several times throughout the course. Most instructors make it a point to ask at the end of the course, but doing so during the class gives you time to make adjustments so that you can better assist your students. Giving out quick, anonymous surveys is a great way to find out what is working and where students need additional support.

We hope these ideas help you to have a great semester with your students. Do you have your own tips for first time teachers? Let us know on Twitter, @Conserisapp. Good luck!

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