Teaching Tips for the Absolute Beginner

Most PhD students get the opportunity to be a teaching assistant; some even get the opportunity to instruct labs, lead tutorials, or even give the occasional lecture.  However, it seems that few get the opportunity to be responsible for planning and delivering an entire course until they actually become a professor. In addition, many universities require no formalized educational training of their new professors.  Once you’ve got that PhD in molecular biology or in mechanical engineering, it seems you’ve got all the necessary qualifications for teaching students at the highest educational levels: in university undergraduate and graduate programs.

Many universities, including my own, offer a wide variety of training opportunities for new professors.  (Some of the older professors would benefit from these, as well! 🙂 )  If you’ve had no formal training on how to teach, I strongly encourage you to take advantage of these as soon as possible.  I know you’re busy, but I promise you that making time for some of these will really be worthwhile.  I’ll also try to help – in fact, teaching will be a recurring topic on this blog since ‘How to be an Effective Instructor’ is certainly not something I can cover in one post.  Not that I am necessarily an expert myself – but after 20+ years of doing it, I do have a few ideas that I hope you’ll find useful.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the experience of facing the classroom for the first time, since I have a friend who is going through this challenge right now.  It makes me think back to my first year as a professor – I must admit, I was pretty frightened at the prospect of putting myself in front of a class of unruly undergraduates.  I had taught a graduate course as a PhD student, but that actually did little to prepare me for the terror I was feeling in anticipation of standing in front of a class of ~80 undergraduate students.  What if they didn’t listen?  What if they booed?  What if they hurled spitballs at me?  What if they all hated me? Worst of all – what if they laughed at me?

These fears were so debilitating that I felt physically sick on the day of the first lecture that year, and on the first day of class in many subsequent years, as well.  I would become increasingly sick to my stomach in the hours leading up to that first class; sometimes it was so bad that I would be afraid of vomiting the minute the class started.  However, I was always well prepared (Rule #1 of being an effective teacher) and within minutes of actually starting that first lecture, I would be feeling fine.  The familiarity of the course material would help to calm me down.

Despite that, I still feel a bit of anxiety leading up to the first class in any course – wondering, what will this particular class be like? Will I have a couple of chatterers or will there be one or two who are chronically tardy – walking across the front of room between me and the class, proudly carrying their coffee and donut as clear evidence that they consider their time is better spent in the coffee line-up, than in my class?

In my opinion, dealing with unruly and inconsiderate students is one of the most challenging aspects of teaching.  Let even a little bit of that nonsense go and pretty soon your classes degenerate into a free-for-all.  Personally, I just need to catch a glimpse of someone texting on their smartphone, or leafing through the newspaper, and it irks me so much that it’s as if someone pressed the CONTROL+ALT+DELETE buttons in my brain.  I immediately re-boot and my mind is a complete blank until its pokey operating system is back up and running again.  Even worse, the persistent “psst psst psst” of the incessant chatterers are just like pesky bees buzzing in my ears.  Annoying and distracting!

So what to do about all of this?  Well clearly the worst thing you can do is to reveal your irritation.  An emotional outburst will only make things infinitely worse.  Personally, I have a two-pronged approach – first, I make it clear on the first day of class what my expectations are.  I tell them quite honestly how distracting it is for me when people are doing such things (I even list all of the potential distractions) and I appeal to them to be considerate to their fellow classmates, if not to me.  I remind them that if I’m distracted, then their classmates are not getting their money’s worth.  I tell them that I am not offended if they would rather read the paper, chat with their neighbor, or surf the web – but that they do need to do it somewhere else. I also tell them that, being the kind person I am, I will happily remind them to go elsewhere if they forget and start doing this sort of stuff in my class.

Now if all of these people were the mature adults we expect them to be, that would be the end of it – nary a problem would arise for the rest of the term.  And, for 95% of people, that is indeed the end of it.  But, human nature being what it is, there are a few people in every class who think that I am totally ridiculous to be asking them to pay attention.  I’ve even been told I need to “Get over it.”  I’ve actually had people natter and giggle repeatedly in every class and then later come and tell me (not ask, mind you) that they have given my name as a job reference.  They really just don’t see that they are being rude to me and inconsiderate to their classmates by distracting me.

So, how should we deal with those students who just don’t ‘get it’?  That’s part two of my two-pronged approach.  For the newspaper readers and smartphone texters – I smile and remind them that there are some very comfy chairs out in the lobby and I assure them that I won’t be the least bit offended if they can’t wait to do this, but that they must do it somewhere else.  For the chatterers – I simply stop talking and wait for them to finish.  It usually takes them a minute to notice that I’ve stopped talking, sometimes it even takes a poke in the ribs from the person next to them.  Generally, it only happens rarely, but if I do get some chronic chatterbugs that just cannot help themselves, I invite them to sit apart or to go out into the comfy lobby.

So far I have never had to boot anybody out of class, but I did lose my cool once – way back at the beginning of my teaching career.  After what felt like the hundredth time of pausing and waiting for this pair of particularly noisy students to stop whispering – I finally said in exasperation, “Oh come on guys! Will you please give me a break?”  However, it came out sounding more like a pitiful plea than an outburst of anger and they both stopped talking immediately. They even came up to apologize after class.  I got lucky in that case, but I wouldn’t recommend trying that approach.

The worst case of talking in class I ever had to deal with happened right when I first started teaching, more than 20 years ago.  In every class she attended, this young woman talked – not whispered – talked, incessantly, to the fellow beside her.  I tried stopping and waiting, and I tried asking her to be quiet, but neither worked.  She talked for the entire class, every class.  I’d finally made up my mind to kick her out if she did it again when, suddenly, she stopped attending class altogether.  I was thrilled – peace and quiet at last!  She even missed the class where I gave back the midterm and, when she dropped by my office to pick it up, I didn’t even consider giving her my “you should be attending class” speech.  Then a few years later I was team teaching a course with another professor and two PhD students – and surprise, surprise – she turned out to be one of the two PhD students.  At one of our weekly meetings, the course captain asked these two PhD students how it was going and if they needed any advice.  She looked at me and said, “I know you are going to love this but… how the heck do we get people to stop talking in class?  It drives me nuts!”  So you see – there is justice in the world after all!  😉


4 thoughts on “Teaching Tips for the Absolute Beginner

  1. Wonderful post (and blog) — thanks so much for sharing it.

    I’m lucky that in my field (lit/lang) I have the freedom and onus of planning and implementing classes. I’m always looking for ways to improve my classroom management since instructors-under-30 tend to have to fight a bit more with the students. At the beginning of my teaching career, I’d hold some things to have been ‘self-evident’ such as maturity, discipline… etc. Mistake! I finally just sighed and gave into reminding them “turn the phones off,” and on occasion I’ve “shot a hostage” with “The syllabus clearly states, your phone goes off, you may be asked to leave. Good bye!” It’s hit or miss and I wish I had a fool-proof solution.

    • Thanks for the kind comment and for visiting!
      I agree – this issue with the cell phones is such a difficult one – unbelievably, it seems to come up in every single lecture. They even email ME during my class – how exasperating! I wish I had a ‘jamming’ device that I could switch on at will. 😉

  2. Hello Faye
    I have enjoyed reading your post. Looks like I may be teaching my first course this fall- an exciting and terrifying prospect! Thanks so much for your words of advice, they are very informative and well…comforting!

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