I remember being told that I had to teach in my 3rd year of grad school. I was terrified. I’m quite shy and hate speaking in front of people. I felt instantly overwhelmed. I had never taught a class before. I was not an education major in undergrad. And my GTA Teacher Training happened 2 years prior and was not discipline specific.
I had so many fears and questions about that first day of class:
What if my students don’t listen to me?
What if I’m a horrible teacher? Poor students.
What if I make a mistake?
You’ve probably had these same questions. And that’s why I’m here. I survived my first day of class and discovered that teaching was my passion. So I want to give you some tips, tricks, and encouragement for your first day of class.
Who is this article for?
This post is for any graduate student or new faculty member preparing for the first day of classes. It will be particularly helpful for students who have never taught before. I hope to relieve some of your fears. This post is also for graduate students who have taught before and want to check that they have everything set for the first day of class.
In my opinion, it all starts with coming into class on the first day with the right mindset. Have you heard the saying, “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst”? While it’s good to be prepared, I think that quote sends a negative message. I like to go into my first day of class with a positive attitude, expecting that it will be the best class I’ve ever taught. And if it is your first time teaching…it will be! So no pressure!
It’s not about you
All of those fears and questions I mentioned at the beginning of this post were all about me. But when you are teaching a class, it’s not about you at all. It’s about the students. You are there to help them learn.
Yes, you are busy and have other, more important things to focus on. But those things are only important to you. They are not important to your students. They have no idea what it means to be in grad school. But they do deserve your best effort.
Be clear and understandable
You should always try to speak clearly and be understandable. This is especially important for teaching in a STEM field, math in particular. Many students come in thinking that the class will be difficult so you want to ease some of their fears by, at least, being easy to understand. If you know you have a soft voice or people have difficulty understanding you, reiterate important things you say by writing them down for your students.
At the end of the semester, your students will be submitting course evaluations for you and your class. It may not seem like a big deal now, but these evaluations can become very important for your future in academia. If you plan to apply for jobs in academia where you will have teaching responsibilities, your course evaluations will be a part of your application materials.
Related Post: How to Improve Your Teaching Evaluations
As you start thinking about walking into your class on the first day of class, set a positive mindset. Come into the experience with a positive attitude and try to make your class a good experience for your students.
Download the First Day Checklist!
Prepare, prepare, prepare
It is so important to prepare for your class before you enter the classroom. Yes, you will be teaching a class that you could do the material in your sleep. But if you are unprepared, you will stumble and possibly make things more confusing for your students. This is not good. You will lose all credibility to them and they will stop listening to you.
Once you’ve shown your students that you know what you are doing and what you are talking about, they will recognize your authority. Then, a mistake here or there isn’t a big deal. It will serve to make you more human to your students.
How to prepare
I suggest writing out all of your notes ahead of time. Then 30-60 minutes before class, go back over your notes.
It’s helpful to point out “interesting” things. Try showing them something that they have never seen before. Maybe you will inspire a student or two to declare your subject as their major.
I also like to mark, in my personal notes, where I want student feedback or to get them to work on a problem themselves.
Try to estimate how much time each section of your lecture will take. This will get better with time. It’s important to respect your students’ time and end class when you should. You also don’t want to have to rush through examples because you are running out of time.
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It’s important to decide how you will present your lecture and what materials you will need. Are you going to write on the board? Will it be chalk or dry-erase? Are you going to make slides and present using a projector?
Personally, I like to use a document camera. When I use a doc cam, I’m always facing my students and I can gage their reactions and interest level as I teach.
In introductory level math courses (precalculus), I like to prepare notes as handouts for my students ahead of time. When I have those prepared for the students (they are responsible for printing them and bringing them to class), I don’t have to spend time in class writing long questions and definitions. Also, it reduces the chance that students write incorrect notes. (This happens more than you would expect.)
Download the First Day Checklist!
The First Day of Class
Materials to bring on the first day
Chalk/markers/erasers just in case your technology doesn’t work or isn’t what you expected
Roll: Go ahead and print out a class roll for your students so that you know who was there and who wasn’t
Syllabus: You are probably teaching freshman and they have no idea how college actually works. So it is important to print out physical syllabi for them and highlight the important parts.
What to do when you get in the classroom
Write your name on the board along with your email address, course title, and meeting time. In fact, you should write your name on the board for the first 2 weeks of class. It’s amazing but students will go through a whole semester and not know their instructor’s name, despite the fact that you sign all of your emails and will send at least one email per week.
Another reason to include the course title and meeting time on the board before class is to give students in the wrong place a chance to leave and make it to their actual class on time.
I also like to give the class something to work on at the beginning of class while you all wait for class to start. Everyone gets to class super early on the first day and this time can be super awkward if they are just staring at you being nervous. And you are trying not to make eye contact with them.
My tip: Create some type of icebreaker worksheet. Or you can give them notecards to write their information on for you. This can be helpful for students who are not yet on your roll. You can have a way to contact them.
How to begin class
When class starts, introduce yourself and tell your students about the class and what you expect from them. This is a good time to go over the syllabus. I wouldn’t read the whole thing but I would highlight key points. Sometimes I actually bring a highlighter to emphasize the most important parts of the syllabus.
Then I like to do some kind of icebreaker to loosen everyone up. During the icebreaker, I get to know the students, they get to know each other, and they get to know me. If you are interested in more details about my icebreaker activity and how I encourage engagement and participation in my classes, check out the Student Engagement Email Course.
Related Email Course: Student Engagement for Graduate Students
After class, I send my students a follow up email to remind them what was discussed in class and list any homework assignments they have. If you are interested in that email, check out 22 Email Templates.
Related Post: How to Write an Email
You should also use this time to check to see if your class roll has been updated. It’s good to check this until the last day to add/drop a class. You may even get new student in your class once word gets out about how great you were on the first day!
Tips and Tricks
Practice your teacher voice (it’s louder and stronger than your normal voice)
Don’t tell your students that this is your first time teaching. If they ask, you probably shouldn’t lie. But they probably won’t ask.
Remain professional with students but don’t be afraid to bring out your personality.
Tell them why you enjoy the subject that you are teaching. You may convert some majors.
If you enjoyed this post and found it helpful, feel free to share it with your friends. Also, for quick access to some of my suggestions, download the 1st day of class checklist.