Recently, I looked over all my papers from one of my old classes. During that class, I was miserable because the students weren’t learning as well as I wanted them to, they didn’t seem to be doing the work, and I felt like I was struggling every day. When I looked through my old lesson plans, powerpoints, and handouts, I saw why. I was aiming too high for the introductory level course that it was supposed to be. I was assigning too much work, trying to get them to read incredibly carefully, and I expected too much. During and after I taught that course, I sought help and found many teaching resources online, in my friends and colleagues, and at school. The thoughts that came from those resources, my subsequent improvement, and my reflection are peppered throughout this blog (see all the blinks below); and I’m happy to have remembered these lessons while I looked through the course materials:
- Know the level of students in your class, what they expect, and what they are able to do. If you don’t have experience teaching at this school, talk to other teachers and learn what their impressions of the students are, or hear how the class has been taught in the past. Know what your department has determined are the learning objectives for the course, and know the course description–students may have had access to these when they signed up for the course or heard rumors about your course. Survey your students on the first day to find out more about what they expect and/or later in the term to see how to improve your teaching. If all of these aren’t possible, remember that an introductory class is very different than a graduate school class.
- Don’t expect students to enter your class as experts in your field. They probably cannot read as carefully or as well as you can, so teach them how. Know that you’ll have to walk them through many things at the beginning of the term, and less at the end. Pay attention to how the students progress and learn the new skills. Keep adding new skills, and help them grow. Some ways to help students develop better skills are: reading questions, teaching them to take notes, test corrections, in-class writing, and many more.
- Consider what you want students to get out of a reading assignment or a class period or the course as a whole. How do you best convey this? Is it something that builds on earlier assignments? Can they learn the goal through active, engaged self-discovery in groups or do you need to walk them through it in a lecture or class discussion (remember: poetry and philosophy are often harder for most students)? What makes the most sense to discuss in-class and what makes the most sense for students to do at home through a YouTube video or a reading assignment?
- Assign reasonable amounts of readings based on your goals and your knowledge of the students. Can this goal be achieved through smaller readings? Do the students need to read all of the Iliad or all of a play? Students might get discouraged by long, complicated readings and give up. Once they get discouraged and stop doing the reading, it is very hard to get them to do the reading again later in the course.
- Organize activities and classes into units. This course had a very nice week-long unit on Greek education that I thought worked well because I could refer students to earlier days easily.
- Have a meaningful first day. Don’t just waste it by reading the syllabus.
- In the first few weeks, do all of the types of activities–lecture, group work (here and here), stations, class discussion, personal response techniques, etc–that you plan to do in the course of the term so that the students know what to expect and are not resistant to new activities.
- And what I recently learned: even if it feels like you failed teaching an earlier class, it was not a waste of time. There are good activities that you can mine and adjust for later use. There are good lessons and notes to use and adapt. There is knowledge that you gained about what doesn’t work that you can use when you improve the course into something that does work. For instance, I loved how I introduced a few classes or units, and I plan to use these again, but perhaps as a YouTube video or a 5-minute introduction instead of as a 20-minute lecture. Also, I aimed too high, so if I teach higher level courses in the future, I’m set. You just have to reflect on the course–good courses and bad courses, good and bad days–and see what worked, what didn’t worked, how you can improve, and what to keep doing.
Even though it was a little sad to be reminded of what I thought of as a “failed” course, I am happy to be reminded of all of these lessons that I have learned since that class. I am now a much more deliberate teacher and I know a lot more about how to approach teaching. I’m happy to have been reminded of these lessons, and I am proud of my progress as a teacher and my personal growth.