5 Things I Wish I’d Known My First Time Teaching

If there’s anything you know about me, it’s that I’m always thinking about teaching. It’s a wonder that this entire blog isn’t dedicated to the subject. 

But since it’s August (!) and a new school year is suddenly right around the corner (!!) I figured now was the perfect time to share some thoughts about teaching.

My first time teaching was in Fall 2017

Over the last year there have been tons of resources created and shared relating to pedagogy, including this recent workshop organized by the Women’s Classical Caucus. Many of these aimed to remedy the fact that pedagogical training is severely lacking in Classics, and provide support to instructors at all levels and stages in their teaching careers.

What all of these workshops and resources have taught me, at least, is just how much I was missing when I first started teaching. Here are just a few things I wish I’d known way back then.

Help with teaching comes in many forms

I think I’ve been pretty lucky with my teaching assignments for the most part. 

In my first semester of teaching I had a fellow grad student with whom I could collaborate on lesson planning. In later years, there were times when I was the only graduate student instructor (this happened by chance). It was daunting at first, but in the end I worked with the lead instructor on brainstorming ideas for section meetings and creating assessments.

Being able to collaborate in these ways isn’t always the case, though. Sometimes your fellow grad students or your lead instructor just don’t want to work with you. 

This can be tough, especially if it’s your first time teaching. 

In these cases, there are several other places where you can find support in your teaching journey, from your home department, to your university, to social media and beyond.

For one, you can get help from grad students who taught the same (or similar) course or with the same instructor in the past. This can be by simply looking at resources they share with you, or meeting with them to talk through some ideas.

There is also a whole network of pedagogy resources available to you from your university to social media to the greater internet, as I mentioned above.

Here are just a few places to start:

This is just a small portion of what you can find. There is a lot of stuff out there. Sifting through it all to find something worth trying out in your classroom might not be the best use of your time during the semester. 

But if you have time to think about your course before the term starts, now is a good time to start doing some research. 

There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to teaching

Regretfully, this is something I only discovered in the last few months.

While many professors tend to provide you with some guidance on what they expect you to cover in section meetings, they typically don’t tell you exactly how to cover it. This can be a blessing and a curse.

On the one hand, it means you have to learn how to teach effectively on the job, which can be especially scary if this is your first time teaching (ever, or in this particular subject).

On the other hand, it also means that you have a lot of flexibility in deciding what teaching methods, activities, and, sometimes, formative assessments you plan to employ. While it is common to refer to previous iterations of the course for inspiration, you (usually) are not required to stick to traditional approaches to teaching the course.

It might be the expectation, but that might just be because your lead instructor or fellow grad students don’t know what other approaches are out there. Don’t let their ignorance hold you back.

Choose your own adventure. Feel free to experiment with new techniques and activities, and get student feedback on them so you can gauge their levels of success.

Also, if a certain activity or approach to teaching the course content goes really well, share that with your colleagues. Don’t leave them in the dark. An important part of changing the way things are taught is through collaboration. 

If you don’t tell them the way they’ve always been doing things isn’t working, how will they ever know?

Don’t reinvent the wheel

While you certainly have more freedom in lesson planning than it may seem at first, don’t toss everything that’s been done before out of the window. While it’s important to try new things every now and then, no one is asking you to be a super-teacher who’s always innovating.

Sometimes what people did in the past just worked.

For example, I’ve always hated group work, and tend to sympathize with my students when they react negatively to group assignments. However, group work can be beneficial to students – and to the success of a section meeting – in a number of ways, particularly if you structure group activities well. 

Some of those benefits include developing skills they can take with them into the professional world, such as teamwork and communication skills.

On the other hand, I have come to hate lecture review. Like, with a fiery passion. It’s kind of a waste of time in a 50-minute section meeting. 

Now, I understand how it could be helpful in theory. It’s helpful if you’re addressing specific student concerns or questions, rather than simply summarizing what they’ve already learned in lecture or from the textbook. 

But unfortunately it always turns out to be something along the lines of the latter.

Some alternative ways of accomplishing the same task:

  • Solicit questions from your students about lecture and/or the readings. Choose 2-3 to focus on. For any questions you don’t get to in class, write up responses to them and share them after class.
  • Solicit questions from your students about lecture and/or the readings. Identify any common questions or themes that appear in the questions and address them in class. Post responses to the remaining questions after class.
  • Formulate questions based on topics or themes that came up in lecture and/or the readings. Put students in small groups and have them work together to answer the questions. Have the groups share their answers and how they came to them with the rest of the class.

It’s okay to bring notes

Several days after I drafted this blog post, a tweet came up on my timeline which echoed what I was feeling:

As I mentioned in my response, on two different occasions, for two different courses, I received feedback that called my knowledge of the subject that I was teaching into question. I was particularly shocked by the feedback in a course that I personally thought I knew pretty well – intro to Greek archaeology (I *am* a Greek archaeologist!). 

The second piece of feedback for a course I taught in history of art, however, spoke directly to my method of teaching. The student claimed that I ‘relied too much on my notes’, despite the fact that the course instructor also used her notes during lecture

Talk about weird double standards.

Here’s the bottom line: just because you need to check your notes when you’re teaching a class doesn’t mean you don’t know anything about the subject. It doesn’t make you any less of a teacher, or authority on the subject. 

For me, making an outline of talking points and activities for class is helpful just for keeping me on track. A couple of pages of notes can also be useful for jogging your memory or getting your facts straight on topics that you’re a little less confident about. 

Often, just knowing the outline is there with me in the room is enough to boost my confidence as an instructor – sometimes I don’t have to check it at all.

Nota Bene:

When I talk about notes here, I primarily am referring to long-form notes or outlines. You can also put your notes in the notes section of your powerpoint; I did this on a few occasions. 

However, a problem you might run into (as I did) is not having your notes show up when you present in the classroom. 

If taking the powerpoint route is your preferred method, make sure you know what the situation will be in your classroom and bring backup if things go awry.

Don’t be afraid to be an advocate

This can be particularly difficult to do if you are new to teaching and your relationship with your lead instructor is in its infancy. 

Know your limits

You can’t do everything, even if your lead instructor expects you to. You are only a graduate student, after all, and more than likely have a million other responsibilities on top of your teaching ones. 

Track your hours, and if you feel like you’re being overworked, let your lead instructor know so that you can work out ways to adjust. Sometimes that means reallocating responsibilities or adjusting the workload so that it’s more manageable.

Know your students’ limits, too. 

If the course workload is too much for you, it’s probably too much for your students, too. As their graduate student instructor, it is up to you to liaise with the lead instructor on their behalf. 

Check in with your students regularly on how they’re coping with the workload or overall structure of the course and bring up their concerns with your lead instructor. 

Sometimes challenges can manifest in more indirect ways, such as consistently poor performance on quizzes and exams. 

When I taught a fully remote course in Spring 2020, we noticed that many students were failing to completely answer questions in the final section of their exams. After asking my students about it, they let me know that they simply didn’t feel like they had enough time to complete the exam. In the end, it was an easy fix.

Recognize offensive behavior, content, or language

Whether or not you feel 100% comfortable addressing the behavior yourself, keep track of any instances where you, your colleague(s), and/or student(s) may feel uncomfortable. This can be anything from the use of inappropriate language, behavior, texts, images, or audiovisual content by students, fellow graduate students, or the instructor themselves. 

You might feel comfortable addressing the behavior yourself. If you do – and note that not everyone does – learn the appropriate channels of reporting for your department or institution.

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