Advice and Experience

Five Tips for First Time Teachers

By Dr Ben Vine

As we begin the first semester of 2019, a number of graduate students and early career researchers will be taking tutorials or lecturing for the first time. Teaching is something everyone early in their academic careers knows they will have to do at some point, but there usually aren’t many university resources devoted to preparing you for that moment you stand at the front of the classroom. The thought of standing in front of group of mostly eighteen to twenty-one year olds who are looking at you expectantly may well be a daunting and bewildering prospect. The good news is that your experiences of university, both as an undergraduate and a graduate student, have prepared you for this moment more than you realize. I can assure you; if you have been entrusted with tutorials or lectures, you are qualified to take them. However, there are certain things worth knowing that will help you adjust to the teaching experience and become an effective teacher.

1. Know your room.

The week before you start teaching or lecturing, go find your classroom. First of all, this means on the day you teach you will not get lost, and will feel more in control knowing exactly where you are going and what to expect. But also, have a think about the environment of the room, as this will help you anticipate what might be the advantages and challenges of the room. I’ve had tutes in rooms that were too long, and knew in advance I’d have to tell students not to sit at the back; you’ll also know whether you need students to move the desks around to allow better group discussion (you don’t want them all sitting in school formation staring at you). Remember, your aim is to create a space conducive to group discussion. Think about what factors might make students feel more involved and comfortable speaking.

2. Have confidence in your own knowledge and skills.

There’s a good chance you are teaching a subject that’s not your specialty, or that explores areas you aren’t quite as familiar with. This may make you feel unqualified to teach the subject. Don’t worry; what you will quickly realize is that even if you are only learning about a subject a few days before your students do, you can harvest information and determine what is most important about a subject much more quickly than they can. You may not be an expert, but you will not have to understand the entirety of a field to lead a tutorial discussion, or to help students tease out the crucial ideas in a set of readings.

3. Have a plan–but know that every class is different.

Obviously, you aren’t going to want to rock up to your classes without any sort of plan for what you’re going to do. Planning the first tutorial is particularly important:. think about how you are going to introduce yourself in the class and how you’re going to make students feel comfortable with each other. You will soon find that every class has a different feel. For example, some will enjoy whole-class discussion, while others will do much better with more small group work. Each week, you’ll find teaching the same class to different groups is a process of trial and error–figuring out what parts of your plan work, what needs refining, and what seems to lead to the most fruitful discussion. Know what ideas you want students to understand and explore in each class–but be ready to find different ways to get to the same point.

4. Don’t fear the dud tute.

In all likeliness, you are going to have one class that almost every week struggles to spark, where the atmosphere is frequently flat and it is difficult to get students into a productive discussion. I have had this experience almost every time I have taught; I’ll have class plans that work excellently with every group, except one that just never seems to quite get on board. This, however, is not a sign that you are a bad teacher. There could be any number of reasons why that one class is more difficult. It may be that there are a number of shy students, or ones who aren’t engaged by the subject; that it’s at a particular time of day (I frequently find that classes straight after the lecture are very good, while classes one hour after the lecture are a struggle); that something about the room (the acoustics, the lighting) just isn’t conducive to good discussion. This also isn’t necessarily a sign that the students aren’t getting something out of the class; last semester I had two classes that were sometimes a bit difficult, and at the end of semester students from both classes were very complimentary about the tutorials. You will have to be more creative with this class, but this is a normal part of teaching undergraduates.

5. Your biggest challenge is helping students overcome their fear of being wrong.

Some of your students will possess natural confidence and not be afraid to express their (hopefully informed) opinion–you’ll be incredibly grateful to these students toward the end of semester when everyone starts getting very tired! A small number are going to be disengaged for one reason or another and there will be little you can do to change that. But the bulk of your students will exist somewhere in between. In a way, your primary task as a tutor is getting these people to feel comfortable with joining the discussion. A great way to figure out who these people are is small group work; having a chat with each group will help you distinguish between students who are a bit shy, and those who simply aren’t engaged.

Another tactic I like to use to get people engaged early in the semester, which may be suited to my discipline, History, more than others, is doing a class debate. Find an issue that caused controversy in the period under study, and have different groups represent the views of historical actors. I have always found this to be a popular tactic with students. In engaging their historical imaginations, they’re less fearful of expressing opinions. That lively energy will make both the students, and you, feel more confident and comfortable in the class.

There will be weeks where engaging your students is easier and weeks (especially toward the end of semester) where it will be harder. But if you can establish clear expectations and a good atmosphere early in semester, your teaching experience will be a rewarding one.

Ben Vine is a Sydney-based historian. He recently completed his PhD in the Department of History at the University of Sydney, studying Boston’s politics in the American Revolutionary War and its aftermath