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While I am still not close to retirement, I am certainly closer to retirement than I am to my first year of teaching. This August will be the 30th anniversary of when I stepped in front of a classroom as a person of authority. I was a graduate student leading discussion sections once a week for a social psych course. The following fall, I taught my own course for the first time. This anniversary has put me in a reflective mood.
Here is what I know now that I wish I had known then.
Develop a teaching persona
Teaching is a performance. When you step in front of a class, you must consider who your students are and how you can best help those students understand your course material. In doesn’t matter how far over you are on the Big Five trait of introversion. You have a role to play.
Do not take cheating personally
Some of your students will cheat. And some of those who cheat, you will catch. It will feel like a personal affront, but student cheating is not about you. When feeling overwhelmed—sometimes brought on by procrastination, but not always—students will go to what has worked for them, or their friends, before. They put their hands into their bag of shortcuts and hope that what they pull out works. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it does not. Make sure there are consequences for cheating. However, again, do not take it personally, because it is not about you.
Students earn grades
Instructors do not give grades. Instructors document the grades students earn.
Someday, a student will come to you begging for a few more points because if they do not get X grade in your course, they will lose their scholarship, financial aid, or something else important to them. If a student is in that position, your course alone was not enough to do that. A string of courses that came before brought the student to this point. Your course is just the latest one in the series.
Stick to your policies
Whatever policies you have identified in your syllabus, do not make exceptions to them—unless your policy says that you will make exceptions. If you are going to make exceptions, think very carefully about how you will decide who gets an exception.
If you have a clear no-late-assignment-with-no-exceptions policy, a student asks you to make an exception, and you do, that is unfair to all of the students who read the policy in your syllabus, took you at your word, and did not ask for an exception.
Do not obsess over that one negative comment in your course evaluations
What is especially frustrating about course evaluations is that the course is over leaving you unable to address your students’ comments. There is no closure.
Early in my teaching career, I had a student who wrote, “She should write more than just the outline on the board, because when it came time to study for the test, all I had was the outline.” In a 15-week semester, this student never figured out that they could write more than what I wrote. I had no way to tell the student.
When reading your course evaluations, remember that these are student perceptions. Find the patterns first. What are most students saying? What should you keep doing next term? What changes should you make? In some cases, for example, you do not need to change what you do, but, instead, make the rationale for what you do clearer.
Now you can look at the comments that did not fit into the patterns you found. If one student, for example, reports that you did not turn graded work back in a timely manner, but everyone else reports that you did, you can safely ignore this outlier. This student may have a different definition of “timely manner.” In fact, the student may have even thought that “timely manner” means you turned work back after a lot of time had passed. The only thing you know is that this comment is the polar opposite of what everyone else in your course said. Treat it as the outlier it is.
In anonymous course evaluations, student biases—both implicit and explicit—can affect how students rate their instructors. If you are young, female, or a person of color, you should be particularly cautious in interpreting your evaluations. More so if you are all three.
Students are responsible for their own learning
Just because you say it, does not mean that students will remember it. What is teaching? Teaching is not talking. Teaching is not “covering” content. Teaching is not flipping through presentation slides. Teaching is helping students do the hard work of learning.
You are using a good textbook. Trust the authors to deliver the content. Your job is to help students with the content they are struggling with. Find out what they are struggling with and focus on that -- you can ask via your course management system before class, use a classroom response system, or just ask them in class (pairs or small group discussions for just a few minutes, then have each group report out).
I tell my students that the textbook is their first source of information. I am there to help the textbook.
It is okay to use your textbook in class
If a student asks a question about core content that you are still fuzzy about yourself, like the difference between positive and negative reinforcement, it is okay to say, "Let's walk through it together." Pull out the book, open to those pages, and put it under your document camera. Modeling the process of thinking through a question is just as valuable as having an answer at the ready.
It is okay to guess, as long as you say that you are guessing
For something that is outside the book's core content, it is okay to take a guess—as long as you tell students you are guessing. Walk students through your thought process; pull in concepts you have covered before and introduce students to new concepts. And, no, after class you do not have to look up an answer and report back what you found at the next class session. If you want to know, look it up. If you think it will be of wide enough interest, post it to your course management system.
Even after 30 years in the classroom, students still ask questions I have never heard before. You cannot anticipate them all.
As it may have been hard for your students to get started doing this assignment, it may be just as hard for you to grade them. To help you get started, remove barriers between you and your grading. Get everything out that you need.
Open your course management system to the right place. You may not be ready to grade, but you have set up everything so that when you are, you do not have to do anything except start.
Grade in spurts. Grade five student assignments, stand up and stretch. Grade another five. The last assignment you grade deserves the same attention as the first one.
Use a solid rubric and consider two-tiered grading. In the first round, you grade using just the rubric with minimal comments. Invite students who would like more feedback to ask for it. For those students who do, go back into their assignments, and write more detailed comments.
Finally, take care of yourself
Teaching takes a lot of energy. Sleep. Exercise. Eat well. Have fun.
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