The first time Maria (a pseudonym) taught a college class as a graduate student, the experience was so demoralizing that after the semester ended, she no longer wanted to be a professor. She had been assigned an introductory anthropology course just three weeks before the start of the semester. Her department chair’s only advice had been to look at another instructor’s syllabus.
“No one talked to me about pedagogy, no one shared teaching or adult learning resources, and certainly no one taught me how to create a syllabus or structure the class toward specific learning outcomes,” she recalls. And no one taught her techniques for engaging her students.
When it didn’t go well, Maria blamed herself. She assumed that her students’ apathy meant that she just wasn’t good at teaching: “As someone who was struggling unawares with impostor syndrome, I internalized what I considered my inability to teach until it damaged my sense of self. At the time, I thought, ‘If I cannot teach the basic principles of my discipline, I have no business being a faculty member,’” she told us.
Teaching as a graduate student, even under the best of circumstances, is distinctly challenging. You’re not yet an expert in the field, you may be not much older than the undergraduates in front of you and you’re juggling all the challenges of beginning to teach along with the intense pressure of graduate studies. In addition, you may be getting messages from your program to put teaching last and prioritize your research. Even simple things like being added to the schedule at the last minute can feel like a signal that your teaching contributions are an afterthought.
Nonetheless, graduate students teach introductory courses that may determine an undergraduate student’s future success in college. You are often teaching the front-door courses that allow students to continue in their major or complete core requirements. Some evidence suggests that undergraduates may even be more likely to adopt a major when a graduate student rather than a faculty member leads their initial coursework.
So if you are a graduate student who will begin teaching next semester and you’ve received little (or no) instruction, how can you quickly prepare so that your experience is not as demoralizing as Maria’s?
We suggest you take an approach that centers on what we believe is the most important aspect of teaching (and, frankly, what decades of research supports): forming connections. Taking time to get to know your students, designing ways for them to connect to each other and thinking hard about how you’re going to help students make personal connections to the course material will give you the best chance at creating a course that you and your students look forward to.
Connecting to you. Let’s start with the first week. On day one—or module one of an online course—consider kicking things off with an overview of why you are excited about the course topics or sharing a little bit about your educational journey and how it brought you to where you are now.
If you don’t have any experience teaching this course, you don’t need to share that. Instead, tell them about your knowledge of the material, the number of years you have been studying it and any fieldwork or professional experience you’ve had. If you feel comfortable, share some of the struggles you encountered as an undergraduate. The details of what you share are not as important as establishing a rapport with your students and communicating that you believe they can be successful in your course.
Connecting to other students. Once you’ve given your students a chance to get to know you and the course topics, use some time for an activity that allows students to get to know their classmates as well as addresses their expectations and concerns about the class. A surefire activity to accomplish both goals is to have students come to consensus around a set of expectations for your engagement and theirs. Think of it as co-constructing the goals of the course on the first day.
First, explain to the students that you’d like their input to establish a productive classroom learning community. Next, split students up into groups of four to five; this can be done face-to-face or online, in large lecture courses or small seminars. Ask them to generate a list of five expectations for classroom behavior, or, alternatively, suggestions for how you can best help them learn in the class. One of us, Aeron, often primes the pump by mentioning that past classes have asked that she return papers/tests within a certain period of time, or that students arrive on time and wait to enter the room if another student is presenting, etc.
Once student groups have generated their five suggestions, ask for a volunteer from each group to present the group’s suggestions while you record them. You can respond in real time to some of their suggestions. For example, if students request their papers returned within a week, you might let them know that because of your teaching load you won’t be able to get papers back within one week but pledge to get them back in two. Or you could collect all the groups’ suggestions, thank them and then use a few minutes of the next class to summarize their ideas and respond.
This activity can be done in online classes in a discussion board or Padlet with a group leader summarizing their group’s ideas. Such activities enable students to engage with each other in an authentic way as knowledgeable participants who have things to contribute to the shared learning of the course on day one. In conducting them, you signal to students that you are open to their input, and you also ask them to share in the responsibility for the success of the course. In that first engagement with students, you can help them better understand you and who you are as an instructor as well as who else is in the class with them.
Connecting to the material. Last, find time in your first week to allow students to make a personal connection to the course material. That could be an individual reflection where students share their previous experiences with the topic, express any fears or concerns they have about the course, or anticipate how the course will be of use to them in their lives.
In an introductory writing course, the other of us, Stephanie, often asked students to share a little about the most meaningful piece of writing they had ever written. Students described writing letters to loved ones, obituaries or essays that had earned them recognition. It helped ground the rest of the semester because students had already identified how meaningful a piece of writing could be.
Beyond the first week, the first time you teach a class you’ll likely be planning a week at a time, and that’s OK. Just keep asking yourself, “How can I help students connect to the course, to one another and to me as their instructor?”
If you are feeling uncertain, seek out resources. Ask to sit in on a class taught by an advanced graduate student, seek out your campus teaching and learning center (if you have one), or read one article about teaching in your discipline. Try to find a “teaching buddy”—a fellow graduate student with whom you can share strategies, failures and successes. That can be a rewarding and time-saving partnership if you decide to share materials and resources.
Keep the Connection Going
Finally, schedule a time during the semester when you will collect anonymous feedback from your students. We recommend somewhere between a third and halfway through the semester, but this can be done earlier. Consider asking your campus teaching center to conduct a midsemester feedback session with your students or creating an anonymous survey for them to complete online. After the feedback is collected, you’ll want to use time in the following class to address their feedback and explain any changes you plan to make in response to their feedback.
Asking your students for their feedback on your teaching when you are already anxious and uncertain may seem scary, but it can pay big dividends. If students are frustrated with an aspect of the course, discovering that early in the semester gives you an opportunity to address the issue and possibly change some things.
In addition to asking students what you are doing that is helping or not helping their learning, consider including questions that ask students to reflect on their own habits in the class, such as, “What are you doing in this course to help your learning?” Or “What could you start doing that would help you to be more successful in this course?” That encourages students to see the course as a joint enterprise with responsibility on both sides. Student feedback may also reassure you; students often give new instructors more grace than expected.
Finally, remember that even if your teaching this semester is imperfect, you belong here. No one is good at teaching right away. Teaching is a practice, and it will take practice to excel at it.