Many new academics will be setting foot in the lecture theatre for the first time this autumn. For many, it will be the first time teaching a large group of students. Previous teaching experience in the UK typically tends to be laboratory demonstrating and small group tutorials as well as one-to-one supervision in the research laboratories. Many of these new academics will be enrolled on their universities teaching in higher education programmes, but there are somethings that these programmes never seem to cover, perhaps because they are too programme specific, perhaps because they are things that should occur to the new academics but frequently don’t. This, therefore, is a list of things I wish I had known 5 years ago when I first started lecturing.
1. The teaching in HE course will not teach you how to teach effectively. It will present you with a variety of sources of information, introduce you to ideas that you’ve never conceived of (constructive alignment anyone?) and generally make you feel very self-conscious in the classroom (your inner monologue will likely be whirling through the lists of do’s and don’ts brought about by the diversity session; you’ll be double checking every 2 minutes that you’re not exhibiting any of the signs of nervousness from the lecturing session). What they don’t tell you is that teaching is a personal thing and you need to try a few things until you figure out what your style is. What works for one person may not work for you and there is no shame in that. You just have to keep making small changes until you find what works. And it should be fairly obvious when you’ve found it. You’ll be bombarded with all of these possibilities such as flipping lectures, making screencasts, interactive voting systems, pre-laboratory exercises, pre-lecture materials, audio feedback, electronic marking, electronic submission and many many more. You have to wade through it all and find out what works for you and your course (and your colleagues).
2. Deadlines are sacred. There is a reason that student work is generally capped should it come in late: we need to teach our students to respect deadlines. The same goes for any deadline you are ever given by your administrator, programme director, head of school…anyone involved in the day-to-day running of teaching in your department. Consider that your grant application would be rejected were it 5 minutes too late, well also consider that teaching deadlines exist because someone needs the stuff done by that time for a reason. You may not be privy to the reason but just get it done.
3. Respect teaching. Yes, we know, you were hired for your research skills and teaching is the inconvenient thing that takes you away from that important research. With a handful of exceptions, teaching undergraduates is the core business of universities, without which they would close and you would be unemployed. Teaching must sit alongside research and both must be respected. Teaching preparation has a rather annoying habit of expanding to fill all available time, but sufficient time should be allocated to ensure that it is done properly. Use the deadlines to help structure things, make a timetable, keep it in its allocated time slot if you must but show it due care and attention.
4. Get it right or refer on. You’ll probably be giving advice to students in some kind of pastoral role. If you do not know the answer, find someone who does and send the student to them. If you give bad advice, you will put someone’s degree in jeopardy. There is no harm in looking things up on the university website while talking to a student (and admittedly students are not always particularly proactive at finding out for themselves). The student may also have found the information but need it translating into what it actually means for them and their situation. You are not expected to be the source of all knowledge, but you are expected to take student concerns seriously and point them in the right direction. And you are expected to do that in a timely manner (which doesn’t mean obsessively checking email throughout the weekends and vacations just incase someone’s having a crisis: out of office settings exist for a reason). There is also no shame in having to send an email to a student saying you gave out some inaccurate information and correcting it. There is shame in someone else having to send out that email on your behalf. Honesty goes along way.
5. Use your leave. While there are normally some constraints on when you can take annual leave (don’t expect people to rearrange a timetable for your annual trip to Brighton, particularly on very short notice), do plan to take it all. You should check if it is OK to take it during semester time. Annual leave might best be translated as those weeks of the year when you are free from the tyranny of your inbox and callers at your office door. Those weeks should be treasured. I genuinely don’t care what you use them for but do use them. But be considerate with it, if you’re going to be off for the two weeks right before the start of term, make very sure you are organised and that people have everything they need from you before you go. If you are going to be away during semester, be ready to incur the wrath of, well, most of your colleagues, if you miss deadlines or don’t arrange things properly.