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What to Know Before You Start Teaching


So, you’ve made the decision to be a college instructor. You got assigned your first course. Grabbed the required syllabus and text. As you walk into the classroom all eyes are on you. As the students wait for you to start a clear thought runs through your mind…Am I ready for this?

If you’ve never taught before, let me tell you it can be daunting. In short order, you’ll be expected to teach the curriculum, get your students to master course objectives, and help troubleshoot all of their problems in and many times outside class. The only way to survive is to be prepared. Here’s what you need to know before you teach:

It’s All About the Students

Challenge yourself to see your instruction from the student’s perspective. While college teachers are responsible for instruction, providing feedback, and leading the class, it’s important to remember that the students have individual needs and personalities to take into account.

  • Consider Model Leadership – Consider your role as the leader in the classroom now. You are, for all intents and purposes, authority and fountain of wisdom in your students’ lives. Teachers see hundreds of students each year and have a profound opportunity and responsibility to prepare them and help them with future academic and professional goals. Be prepared to be a guide and a reference point for many.
  • Incorporate Feedback – Review student feedback from courses, even if it’s from another instructor. Take a look at sites like RateMyProfessor. Do you need to take some of it with a grain of salt? Sure, but this will give you a sense of what is on the minds of students. Ask other instructors what concerns and issues they’ve come across in their classes from students. Read between the lines and pay attention, not to just what they say or write but also the subtext.
  • Identify Your Students’ Needs – the servant leadership model is a great reference point for positively impacting student needs. As you prepare to teach, remember that no two schools, terms, classes, or students are the same. Look for ways to help this particular class, this particular group of students, or this particular individual. Be flexible and adapt as needed.

Map It Out

As a teacher, you’re always “on” as an expert and resource for students – both in and out of the classroom. To do this, and not go crazy, you need to make sure your course is setup ahead of time the way you need. That way you can spend time with students when it matters.

  • Be Rigorous with Course Design – Put time and effort into designing the course outline, reviewing the rubric, and aligning everything to the department and college’s learning outcomes.
  • Provide Context to Students – In your first class, walk students through the course outline and connect the course learning objectives with tangible outcomes for their degree and career path. This puts the “small picture” of the course into context with the “big picture” of their educational aspirations.
  • Don’t Forget to Be Flexible – College students are a hybrid of adulthood. They are officially adults, in many cases living on their own, and responsible for their own success. At the same time, they can also be teenagers or in their early 20s, following erratic schedules, and maybe balancing complicated personal/work/academic situations. In any academic setting, it’s important to be flexible within reason.
    • Set up a clear missing/late work policy
    • Consider some options for makeup exams or project extension
    • Try to hold non-traditional office hours, even if they’re virtual for students
  • Utilize Administrative Support – Good preparation also means having the right administrative support.
    • Seek out help from your department secretary or administrator for things like syllabi, rubrics, textbooks, digital tools, etc.
    • Speak with your IT department if you need any help with getting a course shell or smart classroom up and running.
    • Ask librarians for their help with any planned research projects.
    • Reach out to tutoring centers about their availability and policies in case you want to refer students to them.

Manage Time Wisely

One of the most daunting aspects of preparing to be a teacher is learning to manage time in the classroom. Many first-time teachers make the mistake of trying to fill the entire classroom time with lectures, group work, and other activities. This leaves little flexibility for questions and answers, breaks, impromptu discussion, or student needs.

  • Plan for Unstructured Time – Build in unstructured time during the class at the beginning, middle, and end of class. Some students are regularly vocal with questions and others may need a bit of prompting and time to express their thoughts. Use these structured breaks to ask how students are feeling about the coursework and improve engagement.
  • Be Vigilant with Class Time – Keep an eye on the clock while in the classroom. Plan and structure each part of the class with a start and finish time. Even the best-laid plans for optimizing time can be laid to ruin if an instructor fails to keep pace or pay heed to the demeanor of the class. Watch the time to make sure you’re hitting your main goals, and be flexible with your class plans if you see an opportunity for review, student engagement, or questions.

Keep Your Materials Current

Education is always changing. There are new pedagogies, curriculum, and ideas coming out each term. Outdated materials are often counterproductive to teaching. They can confuse or bore students and may express incorrect information. Changing or swapping new material you find during the course isn’t really practical so it’s important to consider what material you’ll be incorporating before you start.

  • Stay Relevant – Before teaching a course, do your research on the topically relevant and up-to-date material your school is utilizing. Make sure your lesson plans, videos, podcasts, and readings reflect the latest thinking on the course subjects. Don’t rest too long on those laurels and regularly update your course materials.
  • Connect the Material to Current Examples – Sometimes relevancy isn’t always about having the most recently published materials. Often the key to making things relevant is connecting the idea or concept to something that’s happening today. Try bridging the classroom lesson or material to current news, pop culture, or professional ideas.
  • Try Bringing in Experts – Often it’s more practical to cover an emerging or current topic by inviting an industry expert to guest lecture in the classroom. Those preparing to teach can create a list of course topics and identify guest lecturers with subject expertise. See if instructors in your department are already planning something similar. Many colleges are well-connected to business and industry, and may already have a pipeline of experts.

Know Your Assessments

A core, nearly universal concept of almost any class is assessment. Grading is an important part of teaching and you should be prepared before you walk into the classroom on how grading will be set up and affect your students.

  • Begin with the Required Assessments – Many departments have required assessments, this could be a common exam, paper, final, project, etc. Whatever the common and required assessments are make sure you (a) know about them and (b) have them incorporated into your syllabus.
  • What are the Common Grading Methods – Before you get started with creating your own, check to see if your department has a common grading methodology. Rubrics are often the most common. Nearly every department will likely have a grade scale for you to use. Don’t reinvent the wheel here, incorporate the standard grading practices into your course from the start.
  • Outline Your Grading Methods – Make sure you know how you’ll be grading all your assignments long before your class starts. If there’s one area that will cause student complaints and frustration, it’s confusion regarding their grades. Be clear and upfront about this.

    For assignments and material that are your own creation, you need to consider how they will be graded.
    • Will they be set up as multiple choice or scantron assignments?
    • Will you have essay or open-ended questions?
    • What about cumulative assignments, projects, or portfolio assignments?

Teaching college is an amazing and exciting experience. It’s also an important responsibility that can sometimes feel overwhelming to new instructors. a few extra steps to prepare to teach can lay a solid foundation for a successful course. 

About the Author

Christopher G. Bona is adjunct faculty at Purdue University’s Brian Lamb School of Communication and the Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. He teaches a mix of business and communications courses.

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