In many countries, PhD students are expected to teach their degree either as instructors or teaching assistants (TAs). Teaching is an important part of a student's training for a future academic career. While great teachers make it seem effortless, teaching can be hard—especially when you're doing it for the first time. We hope these tips help make your first class a bit easier.
1. Accept that there will be some bad days
Your class will not always go as you had planned it. Sometimes the students will not be engaged or your lesson plan will run short. Try not to get discouraged by these bad days.
2. You don’t have to know all the answers
First-time TAs often worry when they are assigned to teach subjects outside of their research interests. While you might not be an expert in all the material the course will cover, by virtue of your education and training you will know more than your students do about the subject. You also know how to think critically about topics and discuss them intelligently. However, don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know something if a student asks you a tough question. Find the answer after class and then follow up during next session.
3. Group work is great
Group work can be a lifesaver for first-time teachers. While it requires more planning, the class essentially runs itself. Many students prefer group work too and feel more comfortable sharing their ideas with a smaller group than the entire class.
4. Ask them to expand on what they say
It can be hard to get students to talk in class. They often need encouragement to answer questions and share their ideas. A great way to keep them talking is to ask them to expand on their answers. It’s an easy way to create a dialogue and results in more insightful responses.
5. Do not try to wing it
Even the best teachers make lesson plans. 50 minutes is a lot of time to fill when you have 30 or so pairs of eyes on you. Spend some time before each session planning the content you want to discuss and write down some specific questions you want to ask your students.
6. Give them time to answer questions
This is a common mistake among first-time TAs is not waiting long enough for students to answer questions. Wait around 10 seconds before repeating the question or moving on. Waiting will give you students time to consider the question and come up with a thoughtful answer.
7. Learn your students’ names
Learning your students’ names is not only practical (you can’t call everyone “you”), it also shows you are invested in their learning. You can often download a list with your students’ names and pictures from the university to help you learn names faster.
8. Prepare more material than you think you need
You might find that during your first few sessions your students go through the material you prepared much faster than you had anticipated. You might even getting through it all before class is over. This is why it’s always a good idea to prepare an extra 10 to 15 minutes of material in case your class runs short.
9. Check the room out before your first day
Stop by your classroom to scope it out before the semester starts. What supplies are in the room? Are their whiteboard markers or chalk? What about a projector? What kind of adaptor will you need to connect your computer to the projector? It’s better to find all of this out in advance rather than minutes before class starts.
10. Ask for Help
While you may be teaching for the first time this semester, fortunately there will be other students in your department who are experienced teachers. If you’re struggling or looking for ways to improve, talking with more experienced teachers is a great place to start. Ask one of them to sit in and observe your teaching or share their favourite learning activities. Your university may even offer pedagogy classes where you can learn different teaching philosophies and strategies.