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First Time Teaching

What’s involved?


May 16, 2017

Alyssa is a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.



As a teaching assistant in the math department, my home before I joined the neuroscience program, I taught classes. All the teaching assistants did, and when students registered for classes, our names showed up in the registration system. The department tried to put first-time TAs on coordinated classes, which meant we didn't have to do much in terms of curriculum development. We were given a syllabus that was common to all sections of the course, and we didn't have to write our own exams, either - those were common across all sections, too. So, what did I still need to do?


  • Prepare notes for myself before teaching. Do I want to use slides to save the students from my poor handwriting? I tried that, the first day of my first class. I got to the classroom 10 minutes early, as the class before me was filing out, and discovered that I couldn't get my laptop connected to the media system. So, as much as I might have liked slides, the answer became no. What problems do I want to cover? I'm teaching math, and we learn math by doing it. Which subset of the possible examples (mostly even problems from the textbook that weren't assigned as homework) will make sure the students have at least seen every trick they might need on the homework and the exam? I need to find a combination that covers everything and that I actually have time to get through.
  • Create classwork. A lot of this class was standardized across sections. Exams? Standardized. Pre-tests? Standardized. Online homework? Standardized. Schedule? Standardized by necessity - everyone's taking the same test at the same time, so they better have covered the same topics by then! Distribution of points? Mostly standardized, but I had about 10% for whatever classwork I might want to assign. Did I want to give a project? Quizzes? A problem of the day? My first time teaching, I tried a weekly quiz, at the end of class on Friday. People came to class... on Friday. The disadvantage of teaching an introductory class that no one really wants to be in is that no one really wants to be there, and they often aren't there. Switching to a daily classwork/problem of the day type model in later semesters helped a bit.
  • Hold office hours. Sometimes students had questions they didn’t want to ask in front of the whole class, or more questions than there was time to answer fully in class. They could ask in office hours. Sometimes they needed to make up a quiz. I kept an eye on them while they made it up in office hours. Sometimes they got extra time and a private room on tests. I couldn't count on them being alone if I sent them to department proctoring, so I'd keep an eye on them in office hours. Sometimes people wanted an emergency review before an exam. I held a few of those in office hours. Or sometimes no one would show up and I'd get caught up on my grading. It varied.
  • Grade papers. Students did math. I checked if they did the math correctly and pointed out where they went wrong so they hopefully didn’t repeat the error. I made note of errors that many students made, then added examples relevant to that mistake to a future lesson plan.
  • Get up in front of the class and teach. This is the part that everyone got to see. I had to keep my eyes on the clock (start and end on time!), my notes (what was I planning to do again?), and my students (were they following me, or totally lost?).
  • Remember what my abilities are... and aren't. I'm Autistic, and sometimes I can't speak. As such, I needed to be prepared to teach even if speech wasn’t working. I made plans ahead of time, for if I lost the ability to speak while teaching. I kept a speech-generating device (usually my laptop with eSpeak installed) with me, but the main plan was to keep writing on the whiteboard and just write everything. If I had a problem, I was supposed to text our department admin. The original suggestion was that I call her on the department line, but if I can't talk, then I can't talk on the phone. As it happened, I didn't lose speech as a teacher during my time in the math department, but it was better to be prepared than not.


Teaching classes gave me a much better appreciation of everything that's involved in, well, teaching classes. Even with the curriculum chosen and the syllabus (and exams!) written for me, there was a lot of behind-the-scenes work involved.


[Image from Flickr user Marco used under a Creative Commons License]


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