The Poor Guinea Pigs

Feb 16 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

I am not a great teacher. That's true on the same level that it was when I first got my driver's license and was not a great driver. In fact, I had far more driving practice than I have teaching practice, so there shouldn't be much surprise that I'm still more worried about crashing my class into a ditch than am I able to fly down the teaching highway while simultaneously drinking coffee and soothing a toddler in the backseat. I have no doubt that teaching experience will allow me to be at least a good teacher, but I'm struggling right now.

I've taken courses on teaching and TAed more than I care to remember, but teaching an entire class by oneself is not the same thing. I'm struggling to find ways to engage the students and wearing myself down trying to identify all of the content I want them to learn while not overwhelming the topic - simultaneously over and under thinking every lecture, only to turn around and start the process again right after class. It's exhausting and it makes it even more painful when I feel like I'm staring out at the most bored people in the universe at that given time or get through a lecture super early. As much as I dislike crossing campus in the throng between classes, making the quiet walk back across campus alone because I ran out of material 20 minutes early is far worse.

I guess the good news is that I care about the experience of the students, but I can't help feeling sorry for this first class they have given me to experiment with. There's no such thing as a class simulator, so learning with breathing and paying bodies is the only way to get better. There have been a few lectures where I really felt like I nailed it, but so far I've walked out of more trying to make a mental list of all the things I need to do better for that topic next year. For better or for worse, it's a long semester and I hope I'll be a better teacher at the other end.

13 responses so far

  • Dr. O says:

    I think the fact you care means more than anything - the worst professors I ever watched were the ones who just wanted to get the heck out of there. It's only natural to have that uneasy feeling at the beginning; I'm sure with time, you'll become more at ease, and that comfort will show up in class. (BTW, I've taught quite a bit, and I still get pretty nervous whenever I get up in front of a new group of students.)In the mean time, try not to kill yourself to make each lecture perfect. I personally like identifying one or two larger themes - if these themes are absorbed by most of the students, I consider that day a success.

  • Alyssa says:

    One of my favorite pieces of advice with regards to teaching is:You'll fail every time: there's always something you could have done better, no matter how well it goes. Next time, just fail better.Like Dr. O said, you're way ahead of the game because you actually care about the student experience in your class. The best thing you can do is to learn from the class about what is working and what doesn't. Get tons of feedback from them throughout the semester (not just at the end) in order to improve in the near future, as well as for next time.

  • Anonymous says:

    Yeppers. Same feeling I had with my first class. Kinda like driving a bus on an icy road with ups and downs. I also had a guinea pig section and a later-in-the-day section for my first crash course. It was like I got done both lectures, and went home to work on the next lectures or the test or a quiz until the wee hours, got everything online for them, and spent the next day recovering. Alot of what I learned during my practicum was helpful for small classes and engaged students. It was a shock to my system to teach a massive lecture to stus bored out of their skulls, testing my patience on a daily basis, bombarding me with excuses and their parents, empty seats galore, and alot of flunkies. It's ok to flail for your first few classes, the evaluations need to show over time that you improve and that you keep trying new things with your classes. Also ask if you can sit in on a lecture or two of the professors who get top evaluations consistently, since you probably will have those same students who will hold you to the standard of their favorite prof.jc

  • Genomic Repairman says:

    It takes a while before you it your stride. I was the same way but if you show them you give a shit that they are getting the material and are there to give help, it goes a long way with the little flock of dumb lambs.

  • Anonymous says:

    If you are worried about engaging your students in the material, try to make the subject of the day relevant to them. Case-based teaching is a great example, but even just telling them a story through the class. Start with the problem- teaching an intro to acids and bases chemistry (making a wild stab based at the class you are teaching)- lead with the fact that you have just discovered an antibiotic that will revolutionize the medical world because it is the first drug that can treat infectious diseases. But, it is a relatively strong acid and as such cannot withstand the acidic conditions of the stomach. Is there someway we can turn it into a pill? Then go into the nuts and bolts of equilibrium and acid/base reactions, etc. By the end of the session- they will have solved the problem and developed penecillin. There are a lot of good cases available on the web- NSF helped develop a lot in the physical sciences.

  • -L says:

    I use a table PC to lecture and the students seem to be more interested. I give them the lecture skeleton before class so they can follow along. I don't give them any material after wards.

  • Anonymous says:

    I agree with Anonymous above, case based teaching is a great way to engage students. I tried several of the cases at the website below when teaching my first class, and they went over well, and were enjoyed by the students (they told me :)).http://ublib.buffalo.edu/libraries/projects/cases/case.htmlGood luck!

  • Professor in Training says:

    Hang in there ... it's still early days. One suggestion is that if you have a colleague who's a great teacher, ask him/her to sit in on one of your classes to provide feedback - this can be painful to hear but it might help as beginning teachers often do subtle things like having their back to the class when they talk, talking in a monotone, only looking at one student when they talk or talking to the wall above their heads ... all of which will quickly turn a class off. And remember that different cohorts of students even with the same field or year can be very different to teach - they can vary from very motivated and engaged to disinterested and underachieving. It may not be you 🙂

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    I do open with a segment relating the material for the day to what they see in everyday life. That has helped give them some perspective on why they are learning this stuff. I also plan to try some of the suggestions both here and on the previous teaching posts, so thanks for those. It's all part of the deal, I'm just getting really run down by the added work at the moment, which isn't helping.

  • caroline says:

    In the big scheme of things, every professor had to start somewhere. This semester, there must be millions of other students who are guinea pigs, too. I've been there, done that, both as a student and a professor. I promise that the students will survive just fine, as will you. It will get better very soon.

  • Ink says:

    PLS, the first class is tough! I promise: if you stick with it, it gets better. It's kind of like when you first become a parent. Lots of WTF and I Could Do This Better moments. But little by little, we hone our skills.And they ARE learning. They just don't like to show you that. Ennui is the new black...

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Thanks Ink. I do feel like a new parent all over again. "It will get better. You will sleep again, I promise." I swear I've already gotten that advice in my life in a different context 🙂Ennui is the new black... Damnit, and I here I bought all these pink clothes with sequins after the men's figure skating led me to believe that pink and shiny was the new black.

  • Anonymous says:

    Sequins are soooo yesterday. Tassels Dude, Tassles! And a flower hat. and snakes.jc

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