Should I admit to being a rookie?

Dec 16 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

I'm teaching my first undergraduate course next semester. There's been recent discussion about new profs having to learn to teach on the fly and I certainly fall into that category. I've done the TAing, took a course on teaching, did the guest lectures, blah, blah, blah, but I've never been responsible for the material in an entire undergraduate course before. So, I essentially have zero experience here.

This is not a new course and it is an upper-level class in my field, so it's not like I'm teaching anything unfamiliar or being pushed in front of 700 freshmen. It'll be a lab course with roughly 30 students who will mostly be in their third year. To make things even easier on me, the person who previously taught the course gave me everything they had from the last few years. Merry Christmas.

Even with a lot going in my favor, I have no doubt that my inexperience will show to the students. There will certainly be a number of situations that I will not have thought of or be prepared for in the first go-round and I can't pretend that the course will be delivered flawlessly. Is there any situation where a person does their best work with the least experience? Probably not.

Do I pretend to be the seasoned veteran that I am clearly not in front of the students or do I acknowledge the obvious right off the bat with the them? My first reaction would be to let the students know and encourage feedback early in the semester with regard to the pace and delivery of info. In a lot of ways it seems ridiculous to try and hide my lack of teaching acumen, but some have told me that admitting that I am teaching for the first time is inviting problems. I can see how certain students would seize on such an opportunity to complain about any number of things, but likely that the class is too difficult. At the same time, I don't want to find out in the end of year evaluations that I was doing something critically wrong throughout the semester and that no one ever mentioned something that could have been easily fixed and would have improved their experience. As with all student-based evaluations, it's a fine line and I have no intention of catering to every student whim as the semester goes on but am willing to be flexible.

For those of you with teaching experience, what are your thoughts here? For the students out there, how would you react to a prof admitting to being inexperienced and offering to work with the students throughout the semester to make sure they get the most out of the class?

18 responses so far

  • Genomic Repairman says:

    I was in this position before teaching chem lab. Be upfront about your noobish, but explain your credentials some they know you didn't just fall off the back of the turnip truck. Also keep asking for feedback from them if they are getting concepts and stuff. Stay proactive and you'll be fine.

  • Arlenna says:

    You know what's funny, I think maybe you can get away with admitting noobness if you're a dude, but not if you're a young woman who looks grad-student age. My first semester of teaching, last fall, I didn't even act too nooby (nor did I act too overly confident), I just acted naturally and did my best--I made a few mistakes, but nothing major, and always spoke loudly, clearly and matter-of-fact-ly. It's all recorded, so I can go back and watch it. And I overwhelmingly got comments that I "seemed nervous and unsure." This semester I WAS more sure of myself, so we'll see what they comment on when we get our evaluations back in a week or so.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Arlenna, did you let them know you were teaching for the first time? They may have assumed, a priori, that you were nervous and unsure.Unfortunately, I think you're probably right about some gender bias in the response to admitting little experience.

  • Arlenna says:

    They knew because we talked about it at the beginning of the semester when the main prof was introducing me. But yes, making it known that it's your first time sets their mental tone that you might not know what you are doing, and I seriously do look like I could be one of the TAs, or one of the students... (although I always dressed super stylish grown up to combat that somewhat).

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    I routinely get asked if I'm a grad student, so I may be in the same boat there. I suppose I can tell them I'm teaching for the first time and have to show them I know what I'm doing. Whether or not the second part is convincing, we'll have to see.

  • chall says:

    I'd tell them "I've never taught this course before" and let it stand with that. Maybe even say that you have taught other courses before... but not undergrad?! As a general suggestion, from someone who has been the undergrad-course responsible person before; the most important thing is to have all the material done before the course starts. As in, for you. Be sure on which lectures goes where and what they need to know from the beginning (when the exam, what's graded, what you expect from them etc.even if it is an upperlevel class... it's still undergrad and the grades the grades...)I'm sure you already know all that?! My pet peeve, that helped me a lot teaching the lab part of the course was to make a thourough list of all the lab stuff I needed for each lab and then make sure that everything was there the day before, as well as earlier in the course, for the actual day. Oh, and give out some kind of handout on "how to write a report", or give a smaller lecture part on it, at least for me - it didn't matter that it was an "upper level course". The students were all over the map with their reports, next year I had a suggestion list on how to do a report... and that worked miracles :)And especially in the whole "why didn't it work" or the "explanation part" needed a bit of training in my course. "Why did you add this and that, and why didn't it work"...hope this didn't come off as all arrogant, jsut trying to remember a few thing from my first time.

  • Ryan Morehead says:

    When I took an English course as a freshman, it was taught by a TA whose hands would shake as he tried to talk, and he would occassionally glance nervously at the good-looking girls in the class.Don't do that.

  • LM says:

    I'm not sure you have to admit it..there will probably be people who will assume the worst if you tell them you've never taught a class before. Maybe just say that you haven't taught that class before (like chall suggested). Although I'm probably being pessimistic. I don't know if you feel like that would be dishonest in some way. I do think specifically asking for feedback partway through the course is a very good idea. I had a prof in undergrad (who already had lots of teaching experience) who passed out a (very short) survey halfway through the semester to get a feel for how the class thought they were doing. I know I would probably not have given feedback partway through unless asked specific questions (just out of laziness)

  • Anonymous says:

    I've had similar experiences to Arlenna. I hate video recording my lectures! The hundreds of freshmen in a lecture hall is a totally different vibe than 30 upperclassmen in a small room. You can't hide much in a small barewalled white room so telling them you are Dr. Mofo Noob at teaching this particular class might cut you some slack (you have to sniff them out first for the smell of blood). In a lecture hall, hell to the no! They eat noobs for lunch. The less info those squirrelly freshmen had on me the better, but I did introduce myself with a few slides showing pictures of my research and worked it in to the lectures when appropriate.To figure out if the students hate you early on, ask them to write down what they enjoy about the class and if they have suggestions to make it better. It's easy to ask them to do that at the end of a quiz or if there's a few minutes to spare (your sense of timing lectures will be off until you figure out how to pace yourself). Lab stuff. Do the lab yourself beforehand, the entire lab. If the lab is at 8am, make sure all your equipment is turned on the minute you get in, and if you can set stuff aside the day before, do it. Put lists on the board of everything each stu needs. I got all kinds of hand me downs from a previous prof. Christ the shit he did with the stus was ancient! Ask around if you need help coming up with new ideas for exercises. My stus liked that I did a current events slide for every class. I wanted them to tie in what they are learning in today's lecture with stuff IRL. I used ScienceDaily and youtube clips. There was none of the 'but why do we need to know this?' shit! Ask to see what the evaluation forms look like at the start of the semester. I had no idea my last set of evaluations had 40 questions until I got umpteen pages of scores and stats. jc

  • Anonymous says:

    After 25 years in the classroom (my first year someone was chatting up a student in my course, and when I asked him to leave since we were starting class, he said, "Oh yeah, so where's the professor?" When I replied, "I am the professor." he vanished. Imagine his chagrin next semester when I was *still* the professor, and not only that *his* professor.Anyway - I hate to listen to myself lecture, but if you can possibly bear it, you should. I force myself to do it about once every three or four years. A whole lecture, beginning to end. It's effective feedback. I still ask for midterm feedback to improve the course, and make it clear at the beginning that I will be doing that and when (about 4 weeks in, and at 8 weeks in for a class that I'm doing the first time; just before the middle of the term in one that I've done before) and why (to be able to tweak things to improve your learning). Frame is critical - you will make changes to help them learn better, not so they will "like" it better. I always address the comments in class along the lines of giving an overview of what I heard, one thing that I might be tweaking (one year it was just a shift in the day problem sets were due, most of my class had two back to back days MTu of 6-8 hour labs, when I make thing due Friday instead of Wed); things I'm still going to do because it's better for you and this is why I think so.I'm all for transparency, and communication. And I'm female, short, and until my hair turned grey, frequently confused with a student. But I will say this, never promise more than you can or will do. If you won't/can't adjust the pace of the course, then don't ask them about it.And do look at the eval form ahead of time!!

  • Anonymous says:

    Just give your academic credentials, not your teaching experience. That is not relevant. But do:1. At least 1 mid-term evaluation both for students to give you feedback and you to give them feedback. This addresses a lot of issues before they fester for the semester.2. Hire an experienced TA.3. Use 'muddy points' feedback for each lesson. Using an online discussion board, or scraps of paper, let students write down 1 point that they were still confused and address that at the start of the next lecture. Not only does this help students understand the concepts, but it lets you know where you weren't clear so you can improve next time.4. Be yourself.

  • Professor in Training says:

    Introduce yourself during the first class and give the students an idea of your background. If you feel so inclinced, tell them you've taught a lot in the past but this is the first time you've taught this particular class and leave it at that. For the first year, stick very closely to what your predecessors have done with the course content and assessment - you can tweak things the second or third year around once you find your feet. This will allow you to concentrate on your teaching and maximizing student learning rather than also worrying about the level of the material.

  • PUI prof says:

    PiT, actually your enthusiasm will buy you a lot more undergrad first impression points than your credentials. No undergrad is going to be impressed that you are the "grand" of a Nobel Laureate, and all the famous people and institutions mean nothing to them. Start your class off by saying that you absolutely LOVE this subject matter and can't wait to teach it to them. That way you are clear that you're new, but its not a big deal.I second the idea of a midterm eval, but I would do it shortly after your first exam. Not right after, in case they are still pissed at you, but a little ways after so you don't make the same mistakes for half a term.I have a trick called "stumper points". If they ask me a question I can't answer, I write the question on the board in scientific language and they have a week to go out and find the answer themselves and write it up (cited properly). They get a little extra credit for it, and it gives the curious and bright a chance to deepen their knowledge without incorporating it into the course per se. I learn, they learn, and its totally OK to say I don't know, because they are actually HOPING you'll say that.The one thing new teachers face is the balance between being authoritarian or accommodating. If you assume you have to make them study the material you're probably off track. If you cater to their whims too much, they push and push beyond reasonable expectations. I try to make everything absolutely FAIR, that's my measure of tough vs. merciful.

  • Professor in Training says:

    If you look to be the same age as the students, too much enthusiasm can make them suspicious about your ability to actually teach the class. Letting them know that you have degrees coming out of your ears and that you have a great background in the field can help make them take you seriously.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Thanks for all the thoughts. As far as being myself, that's no problem. My pinnacle of acting came as "Shepherd 3" in a 6th grade play. It's tough to peak that early. Since the topic of the class is related to my research, I like the idea of giving the students a brief overview of what we do in the my lab. That will give them a feel for where I am coming from and may have the side benefit of a recruiting speech for summer undergrads. I also like the idea of letting them know that it is my first time teaching this particular class and leaving it at that. I think that feeds nicely into explaining the extra evaluations. I want to make it clear that I care about their experience in the course without suggesting that I will accommodate all requests. The good news is that I am hiring the TA who has basically run the lab for the last 3 years and done it well. Not having to worry about the lab portion (as much) will really help. I do need to come up with a new lab project to avoid overlap with a fall semester course, now that both courses are being taught every year rather than in alternating years. That shouldn't be much of a problem though. I will absolutely be sticking close to the course as it was previously laid out to get a feel for it before I make a lot of changes. I may also use a online discussion board to deal with anything that comes up in class that I can't answer, as well as questions the students have about the material after class. I'll have to see how that goes. I'm mildly terrified to think about how this new aspect of the job is going to fit with everything I have been doing for the last three semesters, but I'm excited about a lot of it as well. Writing four grants next semester while teaching? Not so exciting.

  • Ms.PhD says:

    Great post and comments! I agree re: lecture hall, don't show any weakness; and for young-looking women it's different than for d00ds. Really weak about the main prof who introduced you as a n00b, Arlenna. Probably good intentions, but maybe another example of unconsciously undermining you through cluelessness of the prevailing unconscious gender bias even among students (despite the common myth that it's only the old boys we need to worry about!). Writing four grants while teaching a class for the first time? Ouch. Maybe if you had nothing else going on, but it sounds like you're already into the thick of it. Keep up the good work and keep us updated!

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Two of the grants are re-submits due before classes start, which will help. I'm not looking forward to it, but it's the job.

  • […] I’ve enjoyed most is PLS’s development from “rookie” to experienced university teacher and his willingness (fearlessness?) to explore and adopt […]

Leave a Reply