As this last semester came to a close, I met with some fellow educators that had begun teaching around the same time as my cohort (i.e. when Nickelback was on the radio). With nostalgia we reminisced of the emotion, anxiety, and at times mild terror we felt during our first semester in front of a class, as well as some of the best lessons we have learned along the way. If I had it to do all over again, I would warn that earlier version of myself against:
1. Treating class like a popularity contest
This is a common mistake among new instructors/graduate students teaching or TA-ing college courses, and I myself have fallen victim to the desire to be friends with my students. Generally the mindset goes something along the lines of: “If they like me then they will like the class, if they like the class then they will study, and if they study then they will actually learn something.” In reality, students can adore you and hate the material, or vice-versa. They will see through an instructor (even one that’s just a few years older) that tries too hard to connect by either over-sharing from his or her personal life or by being too lenient with class policies. In trying to be a peer you will, ultimately, lose the students’ respect and possibly even control of your class. So be kind but firm, accessible but professional. You can always cultivate friendships with students once they have graduated.
2. Not videotaping yourself while teaching
No matter how competent you are as an educator, you likely display at least one odd – or oddly recurrent – mannerism while speaking publicly. Whether it’s biting your lower lip, flipping your hair, or saying “but umm” every five words ala Robin Scherbatsky, you do something that distracts from your content and the general flow of your lectures, and you probably don’t even know it. The incredibly easy fix is to ask someone from IT to tape your classes (with student consent if needed) a few times so that you can catch these nervous tics. If you do this early enough in your teaching career, you can eradicate these behaviors before they become habitual (i.e. fodder for student impersonations of you). Record yourself a few times, until you can watch without cringing. You will gain confidence and as an added bonus will have a full-length video to add to your teaching portfolio.
A lot of new instructors prepare every second of class as a sort of defense mechanism, thinking that nothing can go wrong if everything is mapped out in excruciatingly precise detail. There is, however, a difference between organized and rigid, and an instructor that has a deeper connection with his or her lesson plan than with the students can create an environment that is more stifling that inspiring. If you still aren’t completely comfortable with open class discussion, try including binary options in your lesson plans. At different junctures in class, you can give your students a choice between two topics or activities (for which you’ve planned), creating an overall more inclusive environment.
Cold-calling (calling on a random student to answer a question right after you have asked it) can put a room of undergrads on ice. Even if a student knows the answer, she may need a few moments to collect her thoughts and prepare a cogent response worthy of reciting for her peers. The awkward silence that follows a failed cold call will change the tone of the class for the worse and have everyone on edge (dreading that they will be next). My advice to graduate student TAs is to leave the cold-calling for your own graduate seminars and spare your students. If you really like using open-ended questions in class, give students a few minutes to break out into groups to prepare and compare their answers.
5. Giving them everything
In efforts to lead students down the right path, instructors can at times end up carrying them. This often occurs at choke points in a semester (i.e., midterms and finals) when, in hopes of preparing students for an exam, they give them 12-page study guides complete with page numbers of referenced topics and all possible ancillary materials. While this level of doting can indeed evoke effusive gratitude from undergrads, it robs them of a basic life skill: triage. Developing the ability to efficiently sift through large quantities of information in college prepares students for what will be required of them in the professional world (TPS reports anyone?). Instead of that 12-page study guide, a simple list of topics will do. Guiding someone down the right path does not always mean walking every single step with them.
6. Filling in (all) of the silence
For novice instructors in particular, in-class silence can be distressing, and there is often a desire to fill in what is perceived as “dead air.” However, quiet students are not always bored students, and occasional silence can actually be quite productive in the classroom. After covering an especially challenging topic, allowing for 30 seconds to a minute of quiet (which seems like an eternity while giving a lecture) gives students the opportunity to finish and review their notes and mentally prepare themselves to move on to the next topic.
7. Not asking for feedback
Millennials love (love, love, love) both giving and receiving timely feedback. What often puzzles me is why so many instructors settle for waiting until the end of the semester and giving students only the standard-form evaluation. Why not ask students for feedback at various points during the semester? A quick mid-semester evaluation can provide an instructor with valuable insight as to which components of class students find beneficial and which could be modified or improved. That way, any problem areas can be addressed while there is still time in the semester to do so.
Do you have any tips to add to this list? Let us know in the comments!
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