This is a guest post by Ruth Fillery-Travis. She is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London.
Ruth blogs on archaeological issues and her current work at Finds and Features, and can be found on twitter @RuthFT

Teaching for the first time can be extremely nerve-racking. It can also be horribly confusing, isolating, and at times immensely frustrating. You desperately want to do a good job, but how can you when you’ve no experience and the course coordinator insists on sitting in on the lecture and making notes on everything you say?

To be honest, even after a couple of terms it sometimes feels like every time you have to teach a new session you’re right back at the start again. What experience you gained teaching ‘Identifying Roman pottery – first century products of South East England’ doesn’t always transpose well to ‘Introduction to archaeobotanic laboratory techniques 1’.

Having just finished my first two Teaching Assistant positions, and having taken a couple of guest lectures, I’ve come up with a few basic approaches of things I’ve done – or wished I’d done – before I actually gave the class.

As soon as possible:

  • Get some training. It’s easy to put it off but don’t be tempted to leave this until you get your first teaching gig. Teaching training is always oversubscribed and the waiting lists may be significant. In the UK many universities have teaching or education departments , and these are starting to run Higher Education Academy endorsed programmes where you can gain a formal qualification in teaching that looks great on the CV. However even short department or graduate school courses are beneficial. Take anything you can get your hands on.
  • Be honest if you’re nervous. If you get nervous speaking in public, this is the time to try working on it. Colleges should run courses on presenting and dealing with nerves, so make the most of them.
  • Consider doing voluntary work. If there is a voluntary society or organisation based in your college, see if they run any programmes helping school children or undergraduates. Taking part in this will help you get valuable experience with learners and looks great on your CV.

When you get the gig:

  • Establish exactly what you will be teaching. If you are covering for single session, see if the lecturer has already made a lesson plan. Discuss what they did last year, and see if you can get copies of any slides they used. Make the lecturer or course co-ordinator be explicit about what they actually want you to teach.
  • Find out what the students already know.  Placing the lecture or session within the established curriculum is essential, and understanding what the students already know reduces the stress and allows you to focus on what you need to teach. Consider sitting in on the session before yours, or some of the previous course.
  • Work out your boundaries. Some lecturers will be happy to let you do whatever you want – some will have very fixed ideas about what is acceptable. Whatever your personal opinion, making sure they are happy with your work is worth the effort.

Preparing for the session:

  • Give yourself enough time to write. It can take almost a whole day to write the words, slides and discussion points for a two hour session on a subject you are unfamiliar with.
  • Familiarise yourself with the room and its facilities. Don’t assume the PC will play videos (as I have done), make sure you check first! Make sure what you need – whiteboard, blackboard, projector etc. – is present in the room, or whether you need to book it from the department.
  • Check whether the lecturer/course co-ordinator wants to see what you intend to teach beforehand. Some don’t care, others take a very hands-on approach. This can really affect your timescale and stress levels.
  • Establish whether the lecturer/course co-ordinator will sit in on the lecture. If you have a good relationship with the lecturer and they know what you’re intending to teach, they can help ensure you cover everything as well as handle any difficult questions from the class. However you have to judge whether your stress levels can cope with their presence!
  • Work out how many notes/props you need. Don’t worry if you find you need lots of cue cards, everyone has their own style, though never read from your notes if at all avoidable.
  • Practice!

During the session:

Teaching can be a massive adrenalin rush so just try and ride it out and enjoy yourself!

After the session:

  • Consider Julie’s idea of a teaching diary. Reflecting on your work is a great idea, and a necessary part of some teaching qualification submissions.
  • Get feedback. If one of the faculty was present, ask for their honest feedback, either in person or via email. If you’re feeling really brave, ask one of your students what they thought of the session.

This is of course a brief introduction, but whether you take up these suggestions or not, teaching is a really important part of making yourself employable after you graduate. Not everyone enjoys teaching, but the more I do the more I find myself in love with it. Explaining a subject or theory, even one you don’t personally agree with, is the most fantastic method of testing your own understanding. And if you’re lucky enough to teach in your own specialist area, you can guarantee some thought-provoking questions from your students!

[Image by Flickr user Bonnie Brown and used under creative commons license]


4 Responses to Preparing to Teach for the First Time

  1. Fluff35 says:

    As an old hand at this game who has also mentored a lot of newbies, I think this is a really accurate and honest intro to the whole teaching thing. I’d add one thing – it is really hard to get the timing right! you don’t want to be in the situation where the students are packing up their bags and fidgeting ready to get to the next class and you haven’t finished – but nor do you want to run out of material at 30 minutes when the class is supposed to last 45. So, consider having some ‘bonus features’ that can be added or not depending on the clock. Maybe a further example? Or a passage on the handout that you can ask the students to read and discuss in pairs and then comment to you? And if in fact you don’t have time to do that, then you can suggest they look at it after class.

    oh, and a further piece of advice – remember to breathe… It helps!

    • Thanks! Yes good point on the timing – I find including class discussion or exercises always takes a lot longer than expected. I like the idea of keeping stuff back in case you run short, I’ll definitely be doing that in future ?

  2. I am on long vacation so I decided to take up a teaching job at a community school nearby.I am starting soon and you have really helped me with the tips I needed.thanks

  3. […] Preparing to Teach for the First Time (GradHacker) […]

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