By Jonathan Golding, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, University of Kentucky
Getting ready to teach a class (even a lab) for the first time, here are two words of advice based on my 30 years of higher education experience: “Think positive!” It sounds so simple, but it is critical that you enter your classroom with the belief that your time in front of the classroom will be a great experience, both for you and your students.
Keep in mind that when I started teaching (first as a graduate Teaching Assistant in 1981 and then my own class as a graduate student in 1985) I was no different than most of you. I had not had a course in teaching--still haven’t. Also, I had heard the horror stories from my peers that teaching a class was, as one put it, “a NIGHTMARE!” So how can you avoid having a negative experience, and find out that teaching can be a great experience? Here are 10 tips:
- Get your head together, because teaching is hard work. There is both your mental effort and the time it will take to get everything done. The latter includes the time to prepare your lectures, syllabus, quizzes, and exams, and then there is the grading and dealing with all kinds of student issues (e.g., make-ups). At first, all the work will seem endless, but you will soon get the hang of things and figure out ways to increase your efficiency.
- If all you want to do is give a “speech” to a group of people, then become a politician. I know this sounds tough, but when you teach don’t just plan to go in and read off your notes as though you were reading off a teleprompter.
- If you are keep thinking that you will hate being in the classroom, or resent having to teach undergraduates, you might (strongly) consider getting a job where all you have to do is conduct research. No one will think less of you, and you and your potential students will sleep better at night. Bottom line--teaching is not for everyone.
- Start thinking about teaching in a different way. Take some time to think about who was your best teacher as either an undergraduate or graduate, and figure out why you think so highly of him or her. This thought activity will likely be the catalyst for the way you will conduct yourself in the classroom.
- Understand the distinction between your Teaching Philosophy and the Teaching Techniques you will use in the classroom. The former may include your belief that active learning is critical to student success, whereas the latter includes the use of group work, discussion, in-class writing, and student response systems (i.e., “clickers).
- Make sure you are clear on how you want to deal with your students. For example, I do not want to be anyone’s father or “bro”, but I do try hard to break down the barriers that often exist between professors and their students.
- Figure out some ways you can "connect" with your students that help forge a sense of community in your classroom. This can be as simple as letting students know something about you. For example, I give a short autobiography about myself using PowerPoint. This includes the fact that I was the school mascot (the “Temple Owl”) when I was in college—I kid you not!.You can also make sure to answer every email, talk to students before and after class, and contact every student about their class performance.
- Be flexible. I think it is fine to be a bit tough at the start of the semester when you are trying to lay down the rules of the class. However, once things get rolling there will be times when it will be important to bend a bit to accommodate a student dealing with personal issues or a time when the class needs you to deviate from your schedule in order to grasp really difficult information.
- Use technology to your advantage. No one says you have to use every new piece of tech that hits the market, but it is likely that there are certain things that can make your life easier in your classroom. These can include using a course management system, “clickers” to allow for student responding during class, videos (e.g., for a class on operant conditioning, check out this video on YouTube), or even the use of social media to offer all students the opportunity to connect to one another and to the Instructor on a 24/7 basis.
- Students need to understand that you are running the show—yes, you are the Boss! Therefore, you need to decide both what you will put up with (e.g., computers and cell phones) and how your class will run. The later includes simple things like how you will start and end class and more complicated issues like attendance rules.
In the end, although it may sound trite, it is really an honor to be teaching. To know that you can serve as a real inspiration in a person’s life is not to be taken lightly. Don’t be like some of the faculty I can still recall from my college days—they just didn’t care or were on a major “power trip”. Be there for your students and embrace your role as a teacher—you won’t regret it!