Before the Semester Begins
Preparing for the First Week
Throughout the Semester
1) On the first day, introduce yourself. This should be done in your syllabus, but it is only good manners to do so verbally as well. Plus, it helps to get things started on the right foot. After you have called the roll, do not forget to ask if there was anyone you did not call. Students sometimes get lost on the first day. Make sure they are in the right room, using the course number. Find out who you should contact if a mistake has been made.
2) Know your students. It is always a good idea to learn their names as quickly as possible. You WILL want to call on them and have them respond in class. I prefer having students sit in a semi-circle, and for the first couple of weeks I had them put ‘name plates’ made of note cards on the desk in front of them. This way, EVERYONE was made aware of everyone else’s name. Also, they are individuals, not just ‘a class’.
Ask students which name they wish to be used. Be careful if they choose a strange nickname, however. The way I choose to handle this is by using the course list and asking "David Smith. Do you go by David?" Usually they will answer yes, or no Dave, but rarely go off on some strange nickname.
If a student has a name that is hard to pronounce, assure them you are attempting to get it right. There is no need to embarrass a student because you are unable to say their name. Encourage them to help you remember. You expect students to get your rules right; you can at least try to get their names right.
Use their name frequently. This helps you memorize them.
3) Try to become acquainted with them. I have my students sign in when they enter class (proof of attendance) but I had them answer a question along with signing in, such as "What is your favorite television program?"
4) On the first day of class, set the ground rules. Students have a right to know what is expected of them, and what will not be tolerated. Also, have a rough schedule ready so they can be prepared. These should be spelled out in the syllabus as well.
5) If you can justify your rules, assignments, and grading, it will make the process of teaching go much more smoothly. No-one likes doing what they feel is ‘busy work.’ Be sensitive to your students’ goals and needs and try to help them see how the work they are doing in your class will help them achieve their eventual aims.
6) On the first day, it would be helpful to begin with some type of diagnostic exam. At Eastern Kentucky University this is required, so students who are capable will be allowed to move to the next-higher course. However, this diagnostic will also allow you to get a feel for what areas specific students will need to work on, as well as what will need to be covered as an entire class. Assure students this is a diagnostic exam and will not apply towards their final grade.
7) Advise students on what resources are available to them, such as the computer centers and libraries. Make it a point to have the entire class meet in the computer center at least once early in the semester so that they may become familiarized with the word processing software and the internet resources.
8) Begin the semester with a somewhat stern attitude. Do not be soft in discipline. Later on you can soften a bit, but it is much easier to relax discipline later than it is to gain it once students have gotten away with various infractions.
1) Try to visit the room you will be using before the class begins. Be aware of the layout.
2) Make sure your handwriting on the board is visible from all areas of the room. Keep aware of areas of the board that are difficult to see. If it is a marker board, make sure your markers work. Bring spare markers, chalk, erasers -- and remember to take them with you when you leave!
Encourage students to make you aware if they cannot see the writing.
3) Check your voice level. If students can’t hear you, more than likely they will not say so, but will sit there doodling in their notes.
4) Look at the students while talking. If you talk while writing on the board, often your voice is muffled.
5) Try to get all information written on the board before class starts, so you will not spend a good part of the time with your back to the students. Write the next class’ assignments or papers due on the board in the same place each time.
5) When lecturing and asking questions, write the students’ answers on the board. This gives visual as well as aural feedback, thus improving their learning process.
6) Ask before erasing! Reiterate what is on the board to reinforce learning.
7) Make sure the overhead projector, tape player, or any other machine you may be using actually works before class time. Have a back-up plan just in case. If you are showing a video, have the tape stopped at the point at which you wish to begin. There is nothing more frustrating than sitting through ten minutes of trying to get a machine to work or fast-forwarding and rewinding a tape.
1) Get to know your university. Is there a quality Writing / Reading Center available? Do they have tutors on duty? What is its rules, hours of opening? Do they offer workshops, either in the center or in the classroom?
2) Get to know the library(ies). Encourage your students to use them. Perhaps give your students an assignment where they HAVE to use the library. A ‘treasure hunt’ is sometimes effective, or have them use the OED to look up a word. Do the librarians offer tours? Is there a workshop on research skills or study skills offered?
3) If your University has a Writing Center, make use of it. Find out the policies, and if it is acceptable, give them a list / letter of what you would like them to do with your students. This can be helpful in several ways, because students tend to use tutors as editors, and if you have a letter on file requesting that tutor do not EDIT papers, but instead show students how to find their own mistakes, (for example: "If my student wishes to know why s/he is misusing apostrophes, please direct them to the St. Martin’s Handbook. If they ask about a particular apostrophe, please use the Handbook to show them why it is right or wrong.") it lets the tutors off the hook. I find that showing students how they may find their own answers is the best type of tutoring. Impress upon your students that tutors assist them in REVISING their papers, not by EDITING them.
4) Discover if your University has a support system for students. Are there counselors available? Do you need to be referred or make an appointment? Is the service free? (Although you are an English teacher, there may be occasions when you are asked for advice of a more personal nature. It is best to refer these students to where they may get the assistance they need.)
5) Are there any centers for learning disabilities which may have specialists in dyslexia or other areas?
6) Does your University’s computer centers offer workshops in word processing or internet research skills?
7) If your University has tutors available, require your students to make an appointment for a session early in the semester. You may wish to create a form for the students to bring with them to the appointment. This form may have specific instructions for the tutor (which areas the student is having the most trouble in) and also a place for the tutor to sign and date. Otherwise, students may have a tendency to ‘forget’ making an appointment.
8) Stress the importance of good citation of resources while they takes notes during the course of doing research. Citing a resource correctly can mean the difference in an 'A' on a paper and being accused of plagiarism. Make students aware of the importance of taking quality notes while doing research. This will enable them to return to their sources for further information and also will make it easier to cite sources later on.
1) Discover if there is a departmental policy on the structure of the course. Is there a minimum number of essays students must write, or must a journal be kept? Are there entrance or exit requirements? Is there a policy on the number of office hours you must keep? What is the policy on adding / dropping?
2) Is there a policy on record-keeping? Are there forms which must be turned in? And to whom?
3) As a teaching assistant, you will probably be given texts to use, but if you are responsible for choosing your own text, find out the cut-off date for placing the order.
There are four general types of text: rhetoric (general textbooks for writing), readers (contains readings and accompanying exercises), handbooks (provide writing process guidance and rules of mechanics and grammar) and workbooks (contains drills and exercises). Your university may use certain texts, and it may be in your students' best interests to choose the same text they will be using later on, or have used before.
Ask if you will receive an instructor's copy for your own use.
4) Make sure that your teaching aims and objectives are stated clearly. Having a specific goal will make the organization of the semester easier to accomplish, and will prevent you from straying from the ultimate goal. My ultimate goal was my students’ passing of the exit exam.
5) If you have chosen a text, you may wish to organize your semester around the organization of the text. Basically, your course will either be following a text as a guide, or you will have to invent a careful plan of your own. Either way, you will have to have SPECIFIC aims and objectives.
6) Look over the schedule you plan to use. Is it realistic? Does it give enough time for proper revision? Are you giving all papers the same amount of time, even though some papers require more?
7) Make sure you have enough handouts, worksheets, assignment sheets, etc. On the first day of class you may wish to bring extra paper and pencils. Although students are in college and should be prepared, some may not be, and it is best to not let them sit through an entire hour (especially if you are planning a diagnostic exam!) with nothing to do. Have extra copies, in case a student not on your roster shows up. If a student loses a handout or syllabus, you may wish to have an extra one available; however, I would not make a habit of this. If you choose to place this information on the internet, your students can make copies from there.
8) Have your assignments, lesson plans, peripheral materials such as overhead sheets into organized topical folders. When you come across good ideas or materials that would fit into these topics, it is easier to incorporate them into the lesson plans when they are all together in one place.
9) Keep instructions short and to the point. If you are too precise and specific in your verbal instructions, students will tend to tune you out halfway through. You can give out written instructions which go into more detail for your students to peruse at their leisure. Encourage the asking of questions to clarify any instruction they don’t understand rather than trying to anticipate any and all questions in your verbal instructions.
10) Be flexible. Flexibility is a virtue, not a personality defect. Although you need a syllabus for the first day, and you will have to have a rough draft of a schedule, be straightforward about the fact that your schedule is meant to be adaptable. Circumstances change, and you will not get a feel for what your students need help with until you work with them a few weeks. Only plan in detail a couple of weeks ahead of time.
11) When planning lessons, ask yourself what you are truly trying to accomplish. What skills are your students meant to learn from the lesson? What knowledge are they meant to gain? If you wish for your students to learn how to use apostrophes correctly in a particular workshop, don’t get caught up in the moment and begin explaining semicolons. Stick to the main objective. If your students are having problems with conclusions, plan the lesson with a focus on conclusions, not organization of an entire essay. Each lesson must have a guiding goal so you do not wander away from the point and end up causing your students to be more confused than when they walked in your door.
12) Cross-index points in your lesson to relevant pages in the text you are using. Annotate your text. You should be able to open to a page and immediately know what you wish to accomplish. Decide beforehand on shorthand---symbols, colors, etc. which will help keep you organized.
13) Try to incorporate real-life situations where possible. Have students write a curriculum vitae, a letter to the editor, application letter for a job. Have them assess a newspaper article or magazine article. Help them to see where writing skills will truly make a difference in their lives.
14) Put handouts, syllabus, peer review sheets, etc. on the web. This will mean students have no excuse to not have these in their folders, even if they were absent on the day they were given out.
15) Having handouts, etc. on the web or on a disk means they will be easy to revise. It also assists you in keeping all materials related to a particular subject organized.
16) Have an assessment feature at the end of a handout, so that students may be able to check if they truly understand what the handout is supposed to teach.
17) Talk with colleagues. Perhaps work out a system where all teachers contribute lesson plans, assignments, and handouts to a central location. This will also encourage critiques of these items, hopefully culminating in improvement on ideas.
18) In a writing class, you will probably not be using video in the same manner as you would if you were teaching literature. However, you could give students an opportunity to incorporate multimedia into the lessons. For example, a writing class and the internet is a match made in heaven. The internet allows students to research ideas quickly. Due to hypertext, students can easily make connections between ideas. There are newspapers, magazines, encyclopedias, and news organizations available at the click of a button.
Also, if you choose to assign controversial topics, you may wish to assign a video to go along with it. This would not constitute research, per se, but it may help the student into seeing a topic from different points of view. For example, if you assign Capital Punishment, you may wish to suggest viewing Dead Man Walking and / or The Chamber. These movies tended to take a middle-of-the-road approach to the subject and may get the student’s argumentative juices flowing. If you are particularly gung-ho, you may wish to produce a handout sheet to go along with the video, asking specific questions so the student may analyze the video more critically.
19) Be aware there may be students in your room who have reading difficulties. Use your verbal skills and read out assignments as well as handing out a written copy. Let students know you do not mind explaining areas or repeating yourself. Try to use easily-understood language. If your assignment instruction is too complex, you may be disappointed in your students' results. Help your students to learn how to tackle essay prompts and assignments. Show them how they may be broken down into small, do-able chunks.
20) Explain, and explain again if your students look confused. Practice learning how to say the same thing in at least three different ways. Don't forget that just because you understand the jargon of composition and literature, it does not mean your students do. Do not be sarcastic if they don't understand what an independent clause is. They may be chemistry majors, and may have a LOT of subject-specific words and phrases you would not understand!
21) It is better to have too much material, and have it run over into the next class, than to be caught twiddling your thumbs with nothing to do. Be overprepared. For every concept you plan to introduce, have three or four examples to use if they are needed.
1) Encourage students to ask one another questions. Direct them to your website. I put my students into teams of two the second week of class with instructions to exchange email addresses and phone numbers. These students peer-review each other’s papers and work on projects together. They will be more likely to ask each other questions about assignments after having worked closely together, which means you will be less likely to be asked the same question by six students once the bell rings.
2) Don't be drawn into thinking you must lecture or perform some activity throughout the entire class period, every class period. The best way to learn is by teaching. Encourage such activity during peer-review sessions. You may wish to guide the process through handouts which indicate what a reviewer should look for. If your students have a grading rubric, they would be well encouraged to grade one another's papers as well. (Not for an actual grade, of course!) They may then discuss whether they agree with the grade, and why.
3) Make yourself available during peer-review sessions. Walk around to discourage discussion about other activities than the task at hand.
4) If you choose to put students in assigned peer-review groups, you may want to find out if students are in the same dorm, if they commute, or other such factors such as having other classes together. Groups will work better together if they are better able to see one another outside the classroom.
5) Be aware students may withdraw from your course. If you intend to have groups work together on an important paper or project, it may be better to schedule such activities for the latter part of the course, when students are less likely to drop out.
1) Make your students aware of the criteria you use in assessment. A grading rubric can be included with the syllabus, or given out with the first peer-review form. Spreadsheets are useful in keeping track of grades, and if a student wants to know how s/he is doing, it is easy to print out a copy.
2) I find it helpful to have samples of poor, fair, and good essays. We go over these essays in class, pointing out the aspects which gained or lost marks. It is also useful to give students a list which spells out what makes an ‘A’ paper, a ‘B’ paper, etc.
3) Encourage student feedback through email or conferences. Often students truly do not know where they are going wrong with their work.
4) When writing on students’ papers, try to end with a positive comment. Nothing is more depressing than receiving only negative feedback. I am sure you remember how intimate writing can be, and sometimes a comment on a person’s writing can be taken as a comment on their personal being. Be sensitive.
5) Place the grade on the last page. This saves embarrassment when handing papers back to students and also encourages them to look at comments before looking at the letter grade.
6) Give out evaluations. Perhaps bring in a suggestion box. Accept the positive, negative, and ridiculous feedback. Bear in mind, students who are doing well may be more positive, and students who just received a ‘D’ may be more negative, but often student feedback can be very helpful in evaluating and redesigning your teaching technique. Ensure students are aware the suggestions and comments are of value.
7) Use open-ended questions.
8) Ask for feedback from colleagues. You may want to ask a peer to sit in on a class or two, or you may want to ask how they handle certain areas. You may wish to sit in on one of their classes.
9) Although it may feel to be a lost cause, try to impress upon students that it is not the grade, but self-improvement, that is the most important thing. Help them to see their own improvement by keeping individual records and all drafts of papers.
10) Peer assessment is of great importance. By applying assessment criteria to other’s work and checking that criteria has been applied correctly to their own work, students become better revisers and editors.
11) Occasionally have students assess their own work, then give them feedback on their assessment.
12) Although it is time-consuming, actual written feedback on papers is of utmost importance to students. Without such feedback, a student will find it difficult to improve
13) Practice makes perfect, and encourages confidence. Throughout the semester, use class periods as mock test situations. Use a class period as a workshop on how to approach exams. Examine old answers, both good and bad. Often, looking at a poor example teaches better than looking at a good one.
14) In a writing class, it is difficult to use a variety of means of assessment. After all, we are assessing writing. I personally do not like to give tests. This limits assessment even more. However, if at all possible, try to accommodate the variety of students you may have in your classroom. I incorporate a verbal demonstration into the coursework so that students who are more verbally gifted may have a chance to raise their grade. However, I had a student who was so shy she chose to accept a ‘0’ for the grade than get up in front of the class. The point is: all students are different; try to be sympathetic.
15) Put conferences to good use. This is a time when you will have face-to-face contact. You may want to keep a separate file on each student, noting in it particular problems this student may have, comments on each draft of a particular paper, significant improvements in any areas. Have students prepare for the conference, as well. Require they bring in a paper (plus all previous drafts) or a list of questions or requests for advice.
16) Remember your roles. Although as a Teaching Assistant, you may see yourself as a student, your student may see you as a fully-fledged professor. Your words may take on greater importance because of this. Keep this in mind and be sensitive when commenting on work.
17) Encourage students to take notes during the conference, as it is easy to forget what is verbally stated in such a setting.
18) Gage student reaction. Does s/he look confused or lost? During a face-to-face conference is the perfect time to check if you need to go into more detail or try a different approach to a problem.
19) Try to begin and end positively, with encouraging remarks. The beginning and ending is what will be remembered most vividly, as with the introduction and conclusion of a paper or a speech.
20) Notice if a majority of students are having specific problems. If so, perhaps a class workshop or a lecture to the entire group will be in order.
21) You may play amateur psychiatrist during a conference --- not with the student’s personal life, though! Try tactics such as: why do YOU believe you are having trouble with this? How do YOU think you could improve this area?
22) Your students’ body language can be important feedback. Keep aware.
1) Be aware of how you interact with individual students. Do you call on males more often? Are the females in the class more vocal, and therefore receive more attention? What about athletes or racial groups?
2) Try to arrange mixed-gender and mixed-racial groups.
3) Although it is impossible to be completely gender / race / class free in speech and writing, be aware of your students’ reactions. I find it is better to be open about such areas rather than try to avoid them. Often by lifting the lid on issues, you can create a lively, interesting class discussion. Again, make students aware they can comment with their opinion and with their feelings through email or face-to-face if they find certain topics distressing. It would be worthwhile to find out your University’s policy on teachers discussing certain topics, as well.
4) Be open and friendly, but be careful when making jokes. Do not be sarcastic, or make comments which could be misconstrued as insulting.
5) I have a policy which in effect says that while I believe everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and opinions, my classroom is a no-bias zone. Everyone must show respect for one another, and conduct themselves and their speech in a considerate manner.
1) In a writing class, there is not much opportunity for cheating. If one student copies another’s answers, it will in all likelihood be obvious. However, a writing class affords a perfect opportunity for plagiarism. The first thing you must do is find out the university, college, and departmental policies on plagiarism. Then you must impress upon your students the importance of not plagiarizing.
2) You may wish to bring spare paper with you to the first day of class and to any classes during which you plan exams. This will prevent students conspiring beforehand (although they should not be able to, since they will not receive the prompt until classtime.)
3) There are areas on the internet where a student may buy a paper. Be aware of these sites, and let your students know you are aware of them.
4) Plagiarism is less tempting if it is required that a paper must be revised a minimum of three times, and all drafts must be handed in each time.
1) Be quiet and be still for a few moments. Students tend to notice, and the word gets back to the violator.
2) Begin a normal conversation with a couple of students who are paying attention. Others tend to quieten down to ‘eavesdrop.’
3) Whisper. Again, same reasoning as number 2.
4) Call on the person who is not paying attention.
5) Use sugar rather than vinegar. Give means of praise to those who are paying attention.
6) Start classes with an assignment. If they have something to actively do, they are more likely to behave well.
7) Give those you know to be ‘troublemakers’ special tasks, such as being leaders / spokespersons of their discussion groups.
8) Be an entertainer. If you have the gift, crack a few jokes at the beginning of class, or tell an anecdote to get them involved.
9) If you are interrupted, make sure you make a note of where you left off. It can be flustering to attempt to get back on track once you’ve been derailed.
10) Maintain your politeness. Losing control in any circumstances is not a good thing.
11) If a student consistently interrupts, communicate your displeasure privately.
12) Turn the tables. If a student interrupts on a regular basis, have a list of questions pertaining to the lecture ready at hand. After being questioned after interrupting on a few occasions, the student should get the hint.
13) Move about the room. Students are less likely to talk to one another, doodle, or interrupt you when you are standing directly over them.
14) Don’t let your students get bored. Boredom breeds disruption.
15) Keep aware of the class temperament. Be prepared to change pace. You may have to slow down, repeat, speed up to prevent boredom, or change the day’s lesson plan altogether. Have a couple of extra assignments or projects available for emergencies, for example if you have to leave the room for a time.
16) Don’t let infractions snowball. Make sure your students are aware you are more than willing to take action for bad behavior, and nip problems in the bud. It is much easier to quietly discipline a student for a small misbehavior than cause a public scene once s/he feels s/he can get away with murder.
17) Again, sugar works better than vinegar. Award good behavior. Show respect for your students, and let them know you expect the respect returned.
18) Watch your students. You may request some students be moved to other areas of the room, either to break up cliques or to put a problematic student closer to the front of the room.
19) Get to know your students. Be aware if they have particular problems. Try to work with them in a reasonable manner.
20) Know your options. Who do you consult if a student becomes aggressive or is a constant annoyance to the class?
Be aware, the following sources of information are NOT cited correctly. I am aware that the texts I own are old, and the guides and handbooks may have gone through many editions since.
The idea for the list compiled here was taken from 500 Tips for Teachers written by Sally Brown, Carolyn Earlam, and Phil Race. It was published in 1995 by Kogan Page Ltd. It may be difficult for the book to be obtained in the US, and many parts of it would not be helpful, as it deals with the school system in Great Britain. However, most of the tips would be helpful for any teacher. Well, actually I had the idea of a list of tips for teachers on my own, but by looking through the abovementioned book I was able to pin down a fairly organized way of listing the tips. I acknowledge the text's input.
It would be helpful, especially for a new teacher, to have a look through some of the excellent texts that are available. The St. Martin’s Guide to Teaching Writing by Robert Connors and Cheryl Glenn is excellent for first-time teachers. Other good books are: The Writing Teachers Sourcebook by Gary Tate, Edward P.J. Corbett, and Nancy Myers; Preparing to Teach Writing by James D. Williams; The Allyn and Bacon Sourcebook for College Writing Teachers by James C. McDonald; and the instructor’s edition of the St. Martin’s Handbook.