First-time teachers

Before they set foot in the classroom, graduate students take some tips from the masters.

By Elizabeth Wilkerson (MA, English '86)
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Photo by Michael Bailey.

What scares a new teacher most?

Running out of material. Technology problems. Students who won’t talk. Repeating yourself. Commanding respect from students who aren’t that much younger than you are. Repeating yourself.

If you don’t think that’s enough to bring on a sleepless night, consider this: Research shows that students make up their minds about a course and an instructor within the first 30 seconds of class.

Just before the start of the academic year, graduate students faced these fears and more at a two-day workshop designed to make them better teachers. Sponsored by the Teaching Resource Center, the workshop covered a variety of subjects, from teaching math to grading papers fairly, from University history to the Honor System.

President John T. Casteen III kicked off the workshop, as he does each year, sharing the University’s history, from its creation to its years as an all-male school to its evolution to an inclusive, modern research institution. The average age of the teaching assistants in the audience, he noted, is older than that of the University’s first faculty, hand-picked by Thomas Jefferson.

Then it was on to Cabell Hall classrooms, to imagine how they would deal with standing in front of the desks, not sitting in them. They heard one thought several times: No matter how scared you are, odds are you know a lot more about your subject than your students do.

Being a good teacher begins well before that scary first day. Deandra Little, an English consultant with the TRC, urged the graduate students in her session to check out both the classroom and previous TAs’ experience with the class beforehand. And there are many decisions to make: What’s the attendance policy? How late is too late for a student phone call? Where and when will you hold office hours? What’s your persona? Are you Jane or Ms. Doe?

“Memorize your first sentence; everything will follow after that,” Little told them. Smile, make eye contact, and breathe.

Teaching is public speaking, and, Judith Reagan told one group, people fear public speaking more than death. Death, after all, you only have to do once.

Reagan, associate director of the TRC, began her session on making presentations count by demonstrating a dozen or so “don’ts” in less than a minute: mumbling, not making eye contact, making negative and superfluous remarks, for example. “If I were you, I would be checking my schedule to see where else I could be,” she said.

She coached them on the vocal, physical and mental habits that come together to make an effective speaking style. An actor herself, Reagan urged the teachers to use many acting techniques such as relaxing, energizing and warm-up exercises; breathing techniques; and vocal practice. Even though it might seem silly, practicing a staccato “huh-huh-huh” and an extended “ahhhh” sound three times a day will pay off, she said, and she had them form a circle on the Cabell Hall Auditorium stage to give it a try.

“Your voice, your actual vocal instrument, will communicate much more than a voice that is not trained,” she said.

Above all, said Reagan, there are three things to keep in mind: Speak with energy that shows you care about what you’re saying, speak with authenticity that shows you mean what you say, and speak to your audience, adjusting your delivery based on who’s in the room.

“At the end of a lecture you should be a little tired. It’s almost like an athletic event,” Reagan said.

Kelly Erickson, who’s now working on his dissertation in politics, has been a TA five times and taught his own class twice. He led one of the discussions on difficult classroom situations. “I really wish I would have had this when I started teaching,” he said. “Are you not completely terrified?” he asked, getting laughs in response.

“Your knowledge and your good preparation will solve most problems,” he assured them. Still, TAs and graduate instructors encounter a wide range of students, from the brilliant to the slackers. “You’ve got to teach all of them,” Erickson told them, even the ones they might classify as jerks.

He showed them his detailed syllabus, a “bulletproof vest” that sets expectations for students and gives them tips on how to meet them. “When you don’t make everything clear, every student is a little lawyer,” he said.

Expect students to challenge grades, Erickson said. Having strict criteria for what makes for an A or C or F paper helps, and asking a student to write a one-page explanation of why a paper deserves a higher grade is a technique that both discourages shallow challenges and encourages introspection and analysis, he advised.

“If you made a mistake, never be afraid to say, ‘you’re right,’” he added. And when you feel attacked, remember that “this is a very scared 19-year-old who wants to get into law school and thinks a C-minus is the end of their career.”

Gwen Calisch, a first-year graduate student in politics who leads discussion sections for Comparative Politics 101, said the workshops were “great, especially for helping us anticipate problems.

“The practical information we received was particularly helpful; for example, making your syllabus explicit regarding grading rules, attendance and participation, and establishing a classroom ‘persona,’” Calisch said.

“Overall I thought it was an excellent introduction into teaching at U.Va.”