TEACH a college CLASS
Teaching Your First College Class:
8 Indespinsable Tips
1. Be Confident and Prepared on the First Day of Class
As with any job, first impressions cannot be redone. If your students perceive that you are nervous, a pushover, cold, or angry on the first day of class, they will view you this way for the rest of the semester. Before you leave for class, be sure you have extra copies of the syllabus in case enrollment has changed since the last time you checked your roster. Discuss your syllabus thoroughly on the first day, especially course policies and important university policies such as academic honesty. State your expectations for the course clearly and confidently. If you are good with names, try to call students by name on the first day as much as possible. Talk a bit about the subject of the course and why you are passionate about it and find it important and relevant. This is a sure way to show confidence to your students.
2. Do Not Try to Guess What the Students Think of You
Every new college instructor's worst fear is that students will try to play "stump the professor." In reality, this will only happen once in a blue moon-if then. Especially if you are teaching a 100 level or freshman course, most students will automatically have a certain level of respect for you simply because you hold the grade book. Don't worry that they are going to trick you-they will not. Don't worry what they think of your appearance the day you got a bad haircut or accidentally wore two different colored shoes to class. If you're concerned, make a joke of it: once you acknowledge your own faux pas, there is no reason to obsess about what students might be whispering to each other the moment class is dismissed. Whether or not a student's rating of you includes a chili pepper is totally irrelevant to building a successful academic career.
3. If You Don't Know the Answer, Admit It
Though students will probably not try to stump you, they can smell a bluff from the farthest back corner of the classroom. If you make up an answer to a question with which you are not familiar, a few students will learn incorrect information and the rest will stop trusting you altogether. An important part of being a teacher is acknowledging that you are always learning. Students will respect you more if you are honest and admit to being unfamiliar with the question. Make a note of it and tell the students that you will look it up before the next class. Be sure to have an answer prepared (or at least an update) by then. If you don't, many students (and definitely the student who asked the question in the first place) will remember and ask again anyway.
4. If You Notice a Problem, Address It Immediately
As Barney Fife would say, "Nip it in the bud!" Regardless of how small the problem may be, you should address it as soon as possible or it is inevitable that the problem will worsen. If it has happened continuously for several classes, you have sent your students the message that it will be tolerated, and that you are a pushover. Mary Elizabeth is texting in class? Take her cell phone. It happens again? She's outta there. John has his head down on the desk? He's gone too. Amanda doesn't have her textbook? She can sit through lecture, but gets an absence for the day. Whatever your policies are, implement them strongly from the beginning. If you made them clear on the first day, this should be simple.
5. Stand Firm When It Comes to Grades
Every college and university is noticing an unhealthy increase in student entitlement within the past few years. Regardless of the reason, it is clear that more students today than a generation ago believe that they should receive a good grade for simply showing up to class. If the grades you give are going to have any integrity at all, you're going to be having some tough conversations with students who think a B in your course is going to ruin their hope of ever finding a job or getting into graduate school. You can't give an A to every student who runs into your office crying before finals. Likewise, if you don't offer the entire class a second try on their term papers, you can't give one to the student who procrastinated and received an F. It simply isn't fair, and the students will realize it. Before you know it, you'll be hearing, "I got the same grade as Rachel, and you gave her a rewrite-why can't I get one?" And the real kicker is that if you start giving some students second chances without giving them to others, your university may declare all grades for that course capricious, and therefore null and void. The bottom line: don't cave when a student isn't happy with your decision. You are in charge of the classroom.
6. Hold the Same Standards for Yourself and Your Students
As harsh as the above tip may have sounded toward your students, this tip may seem even harsher on you. In order to create a sound reputation for yourself as an instructor, you need to avoid being labeled as "the one who is always 10 minutes late" or "the one who always cancels class" during your first semester of teaching. If you are late, apologize. If you are chronically late, it would be hypocritical for you to count tardies against your students. If you have to cancel class one day because your dog swallowed Tylenol an hour before class, fine. Just don't flake out all the time, and send the students an email. If you are inconsistent, students will notice, and they (especially the commuters) will become frustrated. Ideally, all canceled classes should be included in the syllabus at the beginning of the semester. As a rule of thumb, your number of canceled class sessions should not exceed your number of allowable student absences. If you permit three absences, don't cancel class more than three times (and try for fewer) for the entire semester.
7. Create Simple Study Guides for Exams
This tip has saved me a great deal of headache around midterm and final exams. You will find that students tend to go into panic mode about two days before the exam, and due to this panic they will send you email after email (if you don't respond within the hour) and leave multiple messages on your office phone. They will ask you in frenzied voices, "What's on the exam? What do I need to study? Are questions coming from the notes or from the textbook too?" But fear not, there is a solution: the simple study guide followed up by a brief question and answer session. The simple study guide is actually a list of general course concepts (all concepts you intend to include on the exam) which you will give to students at least two weeks before the exam. After giving the students your study guide, tell them that they are responsible for knowing all relevant information on these concepts. Tell the students that in one week you will hold a brief session at the beginning of class to clarify any confusing points, and that they are to ask all clarifying questions during this session and not via email. Not only will this approach save you time and help you resist the temptation to give away answers, but it will promote a spirit of fairness within your classroom-no one student will be receiving any more information about the exam than any other student.
8. Do Not Take Course Evaluations Too Seriously
During your first semester of teaching, course evaluations will probably seem overly important to you. In truth, you will need some samples of course evaluations for your teaching portfolio once you begin seeking tenure track positions, but search committees will not expect each and every evaluation to say something positive about your teaching. That would be unrealistic because, as seasoned college instructors know, students are not qualified to evaluate courses, period. With course evaluations, take the few, rare constructive comments seriously and have a good laugh over the rest. Students will misinterpret your comments, tell you that you shouldn't have your own opinion, give you low ratings as revenge for a poor grade, and write random, irrelevant comments for completely unknown reasons. None of these should be taken to heart. The fact that someone doesn't like your orange tie or thinks she should be able to get a B while sleeping through class is not an indication of your teaching skills. If you're stressing too much about this, lock your evaluations into your desk drawer for a few weeks before looking at them. Otherwise, look forward to your course evaluations as a nice bit of humor and entertainment at the end of your mountain of grading.
Above all, remember that teaching is about expressing and exploring your passion, having fun, and engaging in thoughtful conversation with those students who are actually there to learn. Take in what you can learn from the experience, minimize the stress, and enjoy your first semester in the classroom!