This post begins an advice series for new teachers. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring that ever-important first semester in the classroom. We’ll share tips, advice, and resources that will help you survive your first year in a new teaching position.
Like it or not, a teacher’s job begins long before we first step into the classroom. In fact, by the time you take your first roll, you’ll have already knocked out most of the groundwork necessary to facilitate a successful first semester. The question, then, is how do we prepare? What kind of planning must we undertake in order to be ready on that first day of class?
Trial by Fire for College Composition Teachers
If your graduate experience was anything like mine, then you probably had very little preparation for your teaching position. You probably received little or no training in how to design a syllabus, how to create paper prompts, or how to facilitate an engaging classroom discussion.
Believe it or not, this lack of teacher training is much more common than you might think. Most of us who enter the college composition classroom have almost no training and very little institutional support or professional development. Which basically means we all have to figure it for ourselves–on the fly. On the job training, if you will.
This “trial by fire” is going to make your first few weeks, months, or even years in the classroom very stressful. Just do your best to step back and observe what is working and what isn’t. Then you can make changes and adjustments accordingly.
I’ll tell you upfront that it took me all of two years in the classroom before I was able to get a grip on what I was doing. My biggest problem was nervousness. I was so nervous in class that I couldn’t objectively evaluate myself or my teaching practices. All I could was try to fill each hour with something (anything) and try not to sweat through my shirt.
That pretty much sums up my first year in the classroom and part of my second. Finally, in my fourth semester as a teacher I started to relax a little, and in year three, things really started to get better. I was finally able to pay attention to what was working in class and shift focus when my lesson plan was dragging.
So, my first bit of advice is do your best to relax. Try to get a feel for the general vibe in the classroom. Stay as flexible and open-minded as possible. Stop occasionally and ask yourself, “Is this working? Why or why not?” For that matter, these are questions you can and should continually ask yourself throughout your teaching career, no matter how experienced you become.
But this flexibility and prescient focus begins even before you enter the classroom, during which time you will need to do a lot of groundwork. This, too, will help you feel more prepared when you finally begin, thereby allowing you to reduce your stress level and be more “present” when you actually begin teaching.
Personally, I like to begin with my syllabus. Determining desired teaching outcomes and the readings and assignments I’ll use to achieve those outcomes helps me feel more confident when I walk into class on the first day. My semester usually starts at least three weeks before the first day of school as I create my syllabus. As a first year teacher, you’ll probably want to allow yourself even more time.
In the next post, I’ll discuss syllabus design and give you some examples from my own syllabi. I’ll break this syllabus down into major sections and show you how and why I include each of these sections in my syllabus.