A little advice for noob teachers

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

I’ve had a pretty good couple of weeks. I’ve finished my comps reading. I’ve been enjoying teaching my grant and proposal writing class. A colleague was even kind enough to share with me a compliment a former student made about my teaching.

Since a lot of my work has revolved around not only comps, but teaching a new class with new preps, I’ve been reflecting on teaching quite a bit. This is my seventh year of teaching. Recently I found old files from my first year of teaching, when I taught composition, and felt that mixture of shock, slight embarrassment, and hilarity while I read through those documents. I remembered getting student evals while a beginning teacher and one of the better ones I remember was “Someday Jessica will be a good teacher.”

That evaluation from a student you can probably read in a number of ways. One way is that I wasn’t a strong teacher at that point. Another one, and the one reading I have held on to is that the student saw something in me that maybe I didn’t see at the time and something that told me that I was in the right profession. It was an affirmation.

Now, seven years later, I think I can say that I am a fairly competent teacher. Sure, I still get students who don’t like my class, but so far their feedback has told me it is mostly for the content–it is a writing class and it is a required class and therefore it is a stumbling block toward their desired career. I have had students who didn’t respond well to me on a personal level and made it personal in their evaluations, and those are the kind that you just ignore because you are not their to get people to like you. But, mostly, my evaluations are very positive and I think I saw some of my strongest evaluations from this past spring semester (and I feel I need to thank the teacher I shadowed for the class I taught last spring as well. He is also a very competent teacher.)

But with this, I have been thinking of things that I wish I had been told as a new teacher, as the noob in front of the classroom. So here are some things, but realize this is not a comprehensive list and it just a list that relates to my own experiences in the classroom and what has worked for me and those things that have worked for me may not work for you.

  • Get anonymous feedback from your students: If you aren’t sure how you are holding up as a teacher, or if you are unsure of how students are responding to the content, ask  them, but make it anonymous. Also, be honest and explain why you are asking for this feedback. Finally, make sure you actually read and respond to the feedback for the students. For example, I asked my afternoon grant class for feedback recently because I was not sure how they were getting the course content, and so I asked. I found that there were a couple who needed a review of the logic of proposals and more that sometimes found the worksheets from the textbook were confusing (they are sometimes confusing). And so the next day in class I reviewed information on proposal logic where I tried to explain it in a different way and I also asked them to bring their textbook next week so we could use that to contextualize the worksheet on the benefits section of the proposal, since that is probably one of the more confusing worksheets anyway. I also explained how when I took this class, I also found the worksheets confusing at times, but using the textbook to contextualize them usually helps. What I found by doing this is that students appreciate you took the time to respond to the feedback they gave and start to trust you more as an instructor. So even if you are having a really rough semester, this will help you gain that respect and structure back.
  • Don’t take too many shortcuts in grading: I know this is tempting. I know it is tempting to create a list of comments and just copy and paste them into papers. I actually did it during my second year as a teacher, but I don’t recommend it unless you also take the time to make the feedback personalized, but even then it may be a big time waster to even create a list of comments to copy and paste. I know it sounds time-consuming and almost painful, but take the time to give individual feedback to each student on their paper. To ease up the workload, it may even be helpful to ask for drafts and comment on those so when you actually have to grade, you can ease up on the commenting. The reason I say this is because students do talk with one another about the feedback they get, and if they notice you are repeating things, word for word, they will have less respect for you, and probably rightly so. I realize that sometimes things do sound similar, but at least put an individual spin on it by addressing the feedback to them or contextualizing the feedback with their actual language in the paper. It also shows them that you actually took the time to care about their work. 
  • Prepare for class: During my first year of teaching, I do remember having 30 minutes before class started and not knowing exactly what I was going to do that morning in class. I also remember coming up with lesson plans as i was starting my computer. Please don’t do things like this. Students have written that they appreciate that I put time into my teaching agendas and that I come to class organized. If you come to class and you, as the teacher, look like you are not organized or have no idea what is going on, you will only find that your job becomes more difficult. This doesn’t always mean writing a lesson plan and putting it on an overhead, like I do, but simply knowing the material for the day. It is also helpful if you relate the layout of class for that hour to your students so they know what is coming up during that class period. I think the only thing that ever got me through those “last minute” days was that I am a good problem solver and a relatively quick thinker and sometimes I work good under pressure. If you can’t say any of those things about yourself, don’t even try this. But mostly, don’t do this. Ever.
  • Remember that you know the content better than your students: This is probably the most useful bit of advice/pep talk I was ever given during my first year of teaching. You will have students who intellectually are smarter than you, so having this in mind is super helpful to you as a teacher. You also will have students that are very dispassionate about your class, particularly if you teach a required general education requirement as I do. If you realize and understand that you know the content of that course better than they do, things will always go much smoothly and you will just feel more confident.
  • Meet students on their level: If you are teaching a class where students are in a particular profession, like engineering or business, start reading professional journals and news articles in those fields. Then, when teaching, bring up some of that information during discussion or activities. Seriously. Not only does it show that you also know some of the information they know, but it helps you integrate that information into the course as a whole. I know in a FYC class, or any first year class, this may be a difficult task, but you know how you always have that one student who likes to show off what he or she knows. Yeah. That student’s major/field may be something you want to look into. Sometimes it helps, and sometimes it doesn’t, but it is worth trying. And I really was taught this from the instructor I shadowed for Business and Technical writing. I saw how he used that knowledge in his lessons and I saw how much respect he earned from his students for that work, and so it is an invaluable activity. And  relevant news and information sources on Twitter in those fields can be really useful to learn some of this information, so it really isn’t as time-consuming as you may think. And to add to this, you could also add simply knowing what is going on in the field you are teaching. Students also notice this and respect it.
  • Stop any disruptive behavior ASAP: This is something that even I need to get a bit better at, but if you see a student acting disruptive (talking during lecture, coming in late frequently, etc) call it out. Realize that this kind of behavior not only disrupts what you are trying to do as a teacher, but also annoys other students. A recent example for me would be the student who answered the phone and had a conversation before class. Even though it was before class started, I still talked to that student by letting her know that it probably wasn’t wise to let every student in the room in on her plans. Sometimes it helps to talk to students outside of the classroom about these issues, or at least for me that is most effective, but sometimes it takes time to understand how to approach this as sometimes students get more disruptive once they are called out in class. But no matter what, make sure you respond to any behavior that you find disruptive to you and your students.
  • Be consistent: Always be consistent. When you find what works for you in the classroom, keep doing that. For me, I find that writing out teaching agendas, going over the tasks for the day immediately, and sharing the homework for the coming class period and repeating that at the end of the period is the best approach for me. It emphasizes my organization, my focus on tasks, and responds to my introverted nature since I know that as a student myself I like to know what is going to happen in class that day instead of just dealing with it happening as it goes along. I like to know if I will be doing group work, individual work, or both during a class period beforehand and so I share this with my students. And I don’t deviate from this at all because it is what works for me.
  • You don’t know the answer to a question? You will get back to them next class: Yes, I have been asked questions I could not answer. Yes, during the first and second years of teaching I tried to fake it. Don’t do it. Just tell the student they asked an interesting question, but a difficult one, and so you need to look that information up and get back to them. One time I did this, I had a student slightly snicker. I responded with the fact that even though I am teaching a college class, I am not a Google search and so sometimes I do need to look that information up. Student never snickered at me again. But all other times I have done this have gone well, thankfully. And yes, I always was able to find the answer for the next class period, so far anyway. Just realize you do get tough questions, and sometimes highly philosophical ones, and you cannot prepare for those on the spot, so just say that was an interesting thought and that you will respond to it during the next class. These also sometimes create fun discussions.
  • Don’t be married to your lesson plan or teaching agenda: Students are people. People have emotions. Sometimes you may have what you think is a fun activity for the day, and notice it isn’t working. Don’t force it. Find another way to relate that information, or if you can, work on it another day and move onto something else. This is partly why I try to write the entire week’s teaching agenda’s before hand. This is why I always have a syllabus schedule. This is why you always have a Plan B and even a Plan C. Things don’t always go as you expect them to, and so don’t force it. Note how your students are reacting and respond thoughtfully.
  • Don’t lie about your teaching experience: When I started teaching, my mentors told me that if I want, I could say I have taught before, if I felt I needed that extra confidence in the classroom. I even heard this when I sat through the TA training class for my PhD. I don’t recommend doing this unless maybe you are a really good liar and you know you could pull it off. I could not pull it off and I feel like, at least for me, saying that I had taught before during my first semester of teaching backfired, so I made sure to be honest my second semester. I feel that students can figure out if you have experience or not anyway, so it is best to be honest if you are unsure if you can get away with it. Just remember no one is going to walk into that classroom and be awesome right away. It takes time, so be honest about the time you have or have not spent in front of a classroom. 
  • You are not there to be their friend: This was the hardest lesson for me to learn. You are not their to be your students’ friend or get them to even like you. That is not the point. The point is to teach them the course content to the best of your ability. If they don’t like that or you, oh well. You are doing your job.

Like I said, the list is not exhaustive and maybe contains some things that are skipping ahead of new teacher status, but I think it contains some thoughtful and affirming advice and I’m interested in hearing what other advice other teachers have for the less experienced, or noob, teacher.

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