advice for your first time teaching

A few people have asked me about how to deal with teaching their first course. I’m far from THE person to tell others what to do. But here is some of my very quick advice. Anyone else have suggestions?

1.) Constrain yourself. I have a set time that I have to prepare for class. It is usually two-three hours before class. When I don’t do this I find that I can spend HOURS preparing. But having a hard start and stop time makes me more efficient and cuts down on my total time preparing. Right before class is great, because, well, you HAVE to be done!
2.) You don’t have to be entertaining. I find that my classes are most successful not when I come across as cool, but instead when I come across as me. So I work hard to make sure that my personality comes through. If students feel like they’re getting to know you, as well as the material, they like it. It also means that the class goes better. They feel like they have a relationship with you. So some of the responsibility falls to THEM to make sure that things go well (it’s an interaction).
3.) You’re not the first person to have taught X. So take advantage of what others have done. Ask friends and colleagues for materials/suggestions. This will really cut back on work. And people generally don’t mind, because they’d done the same thing themselves!
4.) Emphasize to your TAs that it’s important for them to take their job seriously and develop skills. Teaching matters (we all have to do it as a MAJOR part of our job). And the better job they do now, the less work they’ll have to do later when THEY have to teach this course.
5.) It’s okay if not every day is great. Every now and then (when your swamped or overwhelmed) you can give a mediocre lecture. We all do it. Cut yourself some slack.
6.) Not every class has to go from the first minute to the last minute. I sometimes end class early. If I’ve covered the material and students get it, great. There’s no reason to extend the thing out longer and longer just because you feel like you “should”.
7.) The first time you teach a class it doesn’t always go well. This is life. It’s your first time. Everyone knows this. We don’t expect you to win a teaching award in your first year!

8 thoughts on “advice for your first time teaching”

  1. My biggest advice is to remember that you will teach this course again. Do your preparation in ways that preserve notes you can re-use. When first teaching, I would prepare and plan learning activities that often went well. Because I had just prepared, it was all fresh in my head and I did not need many notes. Just an outline would remind me of all the facts and details I’d read about and I could intersperse them into the class in a free-flowing way. But the following semester, I did not have enough material to work with, and had to do the work all over again. (This was in pre-computer days.) I would keep more systematic and detailed notes both before and after class both about the scholarship underneath the lectures and about the non-lecture activities I did that worked well or not. (I realize this is obvious to many people, but it wasn’t to me. Partly I was teaching four classes a term when I first started, so I was always half asleep.)

    Similarly, if you plan for the long haul, you start by using a lot of material borrowed from other people or relying heavily on a textbook (especially if you are at a non-elite school where the students don’t think textbooks are beneath them) and phase in your original materials over the first few years of teaching.

    Oh, another point, in response to whether people like you, etc. The most important thing is to present the appearance of competence. This is true whether or not you feel competent. (It is possible to actually be competent but project incompetence.) Treat it as an acting job, you are acting the part of the organized knowledgeable professor. This is not the same as a know-it-all. It is ok to respond to a question with: “Huh, I don’t know. I’ll have to look that up and get back to you at the next class.” But it is not ok to say: “I have not figured out how I’m grading yet.” It is ok to say: “Please use your daily feedback to tell me whether the lecture pace is too fast or too slow or whether there are points I should explain more,” but not ok to say “I’m still figuring out how to teach, help me out here.”

    Projecting competence is especially important in the first few weeks of class, while you are setting the class tone. So begin with material you feel more comfortable with.

    One more point. Find out college norms about grading, don’t just make assumptions. (I.e. don’t assume that a C is a “good” grade, don’t assume that anything less than an A will crush their spirits.) Grade relatively hard on early assignments, never give a final assignment that you grade much more harshly than early assignments. But don’t scare them to death early, either. You can reserve the right to raise but not lower grades if you decide you have been grading too harshly.


  2. To combine a bit of the previous suggestions together, I have found adding an additional prep time very helpful. This is prep time, but AFTER your lecture. Take 15 minutes or so as soon after the lectre as you can, and sit down and make notes about what you liked, didn’t like…that great idea you had in the middle of lecture etc. This way, when you pull everything out to work on it next time you teach the class — there it is!


  3. I totally agree with the detailed prep tip. After teaching a class a few times, my notes are so detailed I think anyone could basically go in and teach it. Of course, now that I’ve done it a few times, I want to change it all… but that’s a different issue.


  4. Oh, there are so many tips to think of, but here’s one I’ve found useful. It’s more pedestrian suggestion, perhaps.

    For a little bit of a different perspective, I am not much of a ‘detailed prep’ kind of person, and I feel pretty comfortable allowing the topics to flow from whatever the students bring to the discussion in answering the questions that I offer to prompt them.

    However, to keep myself on track, I write on the chalkboard each of the topics for the day (e.g., “Theory Overview,” “Group Discussion on Durkheim,” “Activity on…”), and then cross them out as I go through them. I try my best to spend the final five minutes wrapping up, connection the various threads, and to offer the students an idea of what will be coming up next.


  5. A lot of first-time teachers are TAs. (That’s how it work at my school.) I’d say the main thing is to look and act professional. Just doing that will convey a lot to the students. I always make them call me “Ms. Lastname” to keep a little distance from them. I look very young, so I sometimes have problems with “older” students thinking I’m a kid.


  6. I want to echo OW @ #1 about having detailed notes. I don’t need the notes for the key points as much as remembering why I transitioned to certain points the way I did or how I framed certain examples. Even from one semester to the next, this is helpful.

    Also want to echo rvrlvr @ #2 — I started taking informal notes after class on occasion when I started teaching as a grad student, and now I shut my door for 10 min after every class to do a quick debriefing. It helps keep track of what works (and doesn’t) from one semester to the next. It has also helped me refine my courses without a lot of time and energy.

    I went to a great pre-ASA session on teaching two years ago. One of the key lessons that came from nearly everyone on the panels was “you will mess up…and you will get better.” A good thing to keep in mind, especially if you’re a harried grad student or a first-year prof trying to survive.


  7. So far, I’ve mostly taught at grad school level. When I’ve guested in undergrad classes, I realized (too late!) that I was going way too fast. I also realized that using Powerpoint slides rather encourages this – the advantage of having to write stuff on a board is that it slows you down and means the students can write while you do.


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