Diving into the deep end: teaching my first course

A few years ago, a faculty member at a teaching college was giving a seminar at my university. It’s not often folks from teaching focused institutions pass through, and as someone that is considering positions at liberal arts schools, I was eager to hear what his job was like and what they were looking for when they hired. The one thing that has stuck with me was his description of teaching for the first time — the first course you teach will be like the first pancake off the griddle. It will be burnt or undercooked, but in either case it will not be good.

This semester I’m stepping up to the stove and getting my first burnt pancake out of the way – I’m teaching my first course. Intro to Environmental Science. Although I spend most of my days thinking about amphibian ecology, I’m really excited to return to my roots in Environmental Studies. Some times I miss thinking about economics or socio-political aspects of environmental issues. So while I am really pumped about teaching, as the start of the semester draws near, the fear is starting to set in. I have no idea what I’m doing.

Let me be clear, hiring me for this position was not negligent. I’ve taught students, both as a mentor in research and as a TA. I took a class on teaching science to college students, so I have at least an intellectual grasp on some techniques and pedagogy. And I’m excited about the material and feel comfortable explaining it. But I also know enough to recognize I have no clue what I’m doing and this is going to take more time than I could ever imagine. I want to do a good job, so that is troubling.

Right now I’m working on building content for the first unit, and am hoping to start the semester with most the course developed, knowing I’ll have to adjust as I go. Given my lack of experience, I’m struggling with how much content I’ll have to deliver in class. It’s a small class (~24 students), but it will have a mix of majors and non-majors ranging from freshman to seniors. My goal is to have the course be semi-flipped; students will be expected to read ahead of time, with mini-quizzes to keep them motivated to do so. I’m hoping this will allow me to use class time to let students wrestle with harder, more nuanced concepts and encourage synthesis. And help me to not have to lecture for three full classes a week.

For those of you that read this and have some teaching experience, I’d love to hear your thoughts. When you’re teaching a course for the first time, how do you prep? Do you plan all of the lessons ahead of time? Or develop a timeline and determine the major assessments before the course starts, and build the content as you go? What was something you wish you had been told ahead of time?


One Comment Add yours

  1. As an ex-theatrical with some lecturing experience, the only comment I can make is good luck! Let’s assume you DO know what you are doing, you have prepared well, but you need triggers to release aspects of your subject. A start point can ignite or dampen. Receptiveness is dependent upon interest, so what do your students want to learn? Start with a question: what do you feel you should know about…. Well, that’s how I’d approach it anyway. But again, very good luck.

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