Teaching Tips: A Back to School Guide for Teachers and New Teaching Assistants

I know that it’s becoming back to school time again when I start getting e-mails from my department chair and other administrators, and boy have I been getting e-mails.

While I’ve taught in some capacity for many, many, many years (see this post), I’ve taught college now for four years as a teaching assistant. Although, there is no assisting. For my department, the teaching assistant is the sole teacher, which seems pretty common for English and Core Writing departments. You develop your own lesson plans, teach your students, grade the papers, and are responsible for everything that happens in your classroom. When I first started, it was overwhelming.

Luckily, I know quite a few teachers—several of my mentors, my friends, and even my dad are teachers—and they helped, and continue to help, guide me. But I realize that some new teachers and teaching assistants don’t have those resources. So, as we’re gearing up for school, I want to do several posts that I hope will encapsulate many of the lessons I’ve been taught by these instructors and my students (yes, students teach you too). I will, of course, still do other kinds of posts. However, hopefully these posts will help new teachers, give students who read them insights on what teachers face and how best to work with them, and maybe give other readers a look at what being a new teacher entails.

So, for the first post in this series, here are some teaching tips.

Fallen Apple
An apple for the teacher? Photo By: Elizabeth Preston

1.   Know that your first year is going to be rough. Every teacher I’ve talked to has said that their first year was tough. There’s so much going on: you have to keep track of a million things, you’re developing lesson plans when you’re not necessarily sure that you’re doing them right, you’re learning how to manage the power you have, you’re learning how to discipline your students, you’re learning how to grade, you’re learning what material works and what doesn’t, you’re learning what methods work with your students, you’re learning how to work with individual students, you’re trying to keep your classes on track with one another, etc. It’s a lot. It’s going to entail long nights, worrisome days, and afternoon power naps. But understand that you are not alone, and there’s nothing wrong with you for feeling like you’re barely treading water. Remember that teaching is one of the hardest jobs in the world; but it’s one of the best, and most rewarding jobs you could ever have.

2.  Work backwards to create your syllabus and assignments. Your syllabus must have a schedule of when assignments are due and outlines of the major assignments. Unfortunately, when you’re first teaching, it’s difficult to know exactly what you want your students to do and why. The answer is to work backwards. Start with that huge, all-encompassing assignment at the end of the semester (or curricular unit depending on what you teach). Ask yourself what skills you want your students to have learned by the end and why. Then, after thinking of those skills that will be demonstrated in that giant assignment, think of each individual skill. What assignment will help them to learn and practice that skill? That will help you to figure out the rest of your major assignments and the corresponding homework.

An Apple a Day
You know what they say about apples, don’t you? An apple a day keeps you full of antioxidants, flavonoids, and dietary fiber. 😉 Photo By: Elizabeth Preston

3.  Make sure that you know the why of everything you do. Remember being a student and thinking, “I’m never going to use this. This is stupid. Why am I learning this?” Yeah. Students still think that UNLESS you are able to explain to them the why. If you want them to write a paper, be able to answer “Why?” What skills does the assignment help the students to practice? How will the students be able to use that skill in the world outside of your classroom? It’s difficult to do this with certain things like the quadratic formula (I still don’t use that and have never once found an opportunity outside of the classroom to use it). But try anyway.

4.  Stay 1-2 weeks ahead of your students. When I felt like I was drowning, I asked one of my mentors how far I needed to stay ahead (meaning having the lesson plans done and materials gathered), and he said 1-2 weeks. Ideally, you’d be more ahead than that, but this is pretty realistic for your first year of teaching, particularly if you’re still taking classes yourself.

5.  Ask for help. If you have teacher friends, ask them questions. If you have non-teacher friends, ask them questions. Sometimes, the answers lie just in having a conversation with someone about your worries and using them as soundboards. Heck, DM me or comment below, and I’ll respond if you have questions.

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