87

I'm a TA teaching a class this fall for the first time. I've taught before, but never this class, and never felt an obligation to tell my students it's my first time teaching a given class. But, being a bit more experienced I thought it might be a good idea this time by perhaps endearing me to my students, being so candid on the first day. Does anyone have similar thoughts on approaching a first-time teaching role?

  • 34
    Students usually don't care if the TA is experienced or not. It's automatically assumed that i) the TA had taken the course before with reasonable success, and ii) the TA's ability was acknowledged by the instructor. No need to dwell on this experience thing, just go prepared, be helpful, and follow up if necessary. True experience and teaching passion shine; it does not need to be conveyed verbally. In addition, the course evaluation very seldom comes less harsh because it's the TA's or instructor's first attempt. – Penguin_Knight Aug 16 '16 at 0:50
  • 135
    This is your pilot speaking. If any of you feel scared because you are flying for the first time, don't worry, you are not alone. It's my first time as well! – gerrit Aug 16 '16 at 10:11
  • 29
    I've been specifically told not to tell students if it's my first time teaching the class, as it can decrease student confidence in your teaching. Even if the teaching is excellent, low confidence levels lead to less attention and decreased student achievement. – Dustin Aug 16 '16 at 12:33
  • 8
    I don't see an upside to telling them. They have a level of expectation that the teacher has appropriate expertise, and you should do nothing to interfere with that expectation. Now, put in the work necessary to meet it. – Scott Seidman Aug 16 '16 at 14:00
  • 16
    Don't worry, students can sense fear so there is no need to announce it. "It's my first day." is a post-screwup fall-back not pre-screwup primer. – MonkeyZeus Aug 16 '16 at 17:14

12 Answers 12

75

Recommend not on the first day.

I'm actually in exactly this situation for the fall term, so I was prepping myself mentally for just this issue. In my experience, expressing any uncertainty about the course on the first day prompts almost instantaneous pleading/negotiation/argumentation over any and all stated procedures (parameters for assignments, grading, due dates, etc., etc.)

Now, this is partly influenced by the fact that I work at an urban community college where the student maturity level can be quite low for certain courses. If you work at a more high-powered institution then the environment might be different. But I still think it best to be authoritative at the start, gauge the environment on subsequent days, and then if you feel comfortable admitting the situation and/or asking for feedback later on, you'll be more confident about doing so.

  • 9
    " If you work at a more high-powered institution then the environment might be different" -- in that instead of thinking they can get away with some scam if they press hard enough, the students think they're smarter than the faculty and should never give up until proven right? ;-) – Steve Jessop Aug 18 '16 at 9:28
  • 1
    This is a good point. But you could admit it is your first time teaching the course, and welcome feedback on certain aspects, like the presentation of the material, while making it clear that the assessment criteria and assignments are non-negotiable. – user24098 Aug 18 '16 at 10:13
  • 2
    @SteveJessop: Well, I wouldn't know either way, that's the point. When I leave out that qualifier then I get complaints that my observations are pretending to generality. :-) – Daniel R. Collins Aug 18 '16 at 17:01
56

I've been in this situation from both sides, and would say an emphatic "no" to telling students you've never done this before.

We know that the reality is that faculty are often thrust into a class without tons of experience at teaching it, but to the students, you're the expert. Starting off the class by essentially saying "I'm not an expert" will leave your students wondering what they're doing there. You shouldn't lie, of course, but it's important to the classroom environment that you show confidence in your ability. It's perfectly possible to learn from the class and be open to student feedback without proclaiming your lack of experience.

When I was in undergrad I had a summer course where the graduate student teaching it started off by telling us that it was her first time teaching. I felt bad for her, because she wasn't really great at it, but opening the class that way was like blood in the water to a classroom full of 19 year olds. Every fault was highlighted, every difficult exam was her fault, every difficult topic must have been difficult because she didn't know what she was doing. It made the experience worse for her and for the students, when it really didn't need to be that way.

Good luck!

  • 9
    Saying it's your first time teaching the course may undermine your authority as a teacher, but it may not as an expert in the field. I had a professor who had "retired" from the industry after 30 years to teach. It was his first time teaching, but no one doubted his expertise in the industry. – Kys Aug 16 '16 at 20:05
  • 4
    Given that the OP said they were a TA I don't think this distinction is noteworthy to their case, but maybe it would be for others. – Jeff Aug 16 '16 at 20:17
  • +1 I share exactly the same experience...in a certain IT classes when I was 15-17 the teacher said openly he was learning as he was teaching us, and despite his limited abilities, saying that impacted us much more negatively. – Rui F Ribeiro Aug 18 '16 at 16:28
21

Only if you're open to suggestions mid-semester.

Ask for suggestions on a half-sheet of paper about a third-of-the-way through the class. What worked so far? What hasn't?

If the class doesn't go well for whatever reason, and you told students you never taught it before, they will complain about you behind your back, and say you didn't prepare or you shouldn't have taught. They might complain to your advisor or the department head or someone else in the department.

If you don't want feedback, don't tell them.

  • 17
    +1, though you can also do this even if you don't tell them this is your first time teaching. I've had several lecturers who ask for this kind of feedback as a matter of course, even if they've already taught the class multiple times. – chipbuster Aug 16 '16 at 3:23
9

I cautiously suggest you do mention it right away, based upon my own experiences as a student.

During my days as a student, I attended various classes in which lecturers would start out saying that they were teaching the class, or a part of it, for the first time. From my point of view back then, this seemed quite positive in several respects:

  • First of all, it made the lecturer seem inherently sympathic:
    • The announcement was a signal they were not lecturers of the kind that would talk only about lecture contents and nothing else.
    • Moreover, it was a signal they were not of the I'm-god-you're-nothing type1, but indeed even allowed students a glimpse "behind the curtain".
  • Second, it created opportunities to modify the teaching according to the students' needs. While otherwise, students might be too shy to ask for changes in the focus or presentation of certain topics, or think that it's all set in stone, the early explicit announcement that it's the first time the lecturer is teaching the class made clear that suggestions for changes were very welcome.
  • Third, in hindsight, when I started giving my first classes as a TA, it was good to remember the seemingly well-prepared and professional lecturers who taught classes for the first time, too.

Now, of course, much of this can just as well be achieved by simply pointing out willingness to accept suggestions, but it just seems somewhat more "convincing" if you know the actual backstory for why suggestions are so welcome. Therefore, personally, I would usually freely tell students in my classes when I'm new in the particular class or topic. I did not notice any negative effects, but then, I was often in touch with very motivated students who may have caught more of my attention than the couple of disinterested ones to whom the announcement removed the last straw to paying any attention. For the motivated students, I felt it helped bridge the distance to them to some extent.

1: Thankfully, I only met very few professors or otherwise who held this stance towards students.

7

I believe this is depending to the situation, more exactly the class you're in front of: imagine you're teaching in a class where the students don't care about your class, they just want to sabotage everything you say and do (a typical secondary school), then I would advise you not to say this at all, otherwise they will just use this information against you. (I've been teaching in such a class years ago, I needed to teach MS-Access and the day before my first lesson I didn't even know that MS-Access was about relational databases, I never told my students, they never found it out and I didn't have big problems teaching that class).

However if you are teaching in a motivated environment, there the situation can be just the opposite: when I was studying I went to Spanish evening school and after three lessons, the teacher was replaced due to pregnancy complications. Those complications were so unexpected that the school was not prepared for it, and they have found a Spanish student to take over the class. That student almost knew no Dutch (I'm living in the northern part of Belgium), in fact we knew more Spanish than this student knew Dutch :-) It was a complete disaster at first: the half of the class just stopped because of the difficult situation. However the other half of the class persisted: the student improved her Dutch and the remaining class members heavily improved their Spanish (which is exactly the intention of a Spanish evening course :-) )

So, in conclusion, I'd advise you the following: at first, don't mention to the class that you've never given this course before. Once you've established a reasonable relationship and you know whether or not the class is of good faith (don't be naïve!) you might consider sharing this information with the class.

Good luck

6

My advice: It's fine to mention this point if you want to; however, if you have a good teaching attitude then it's not terribly important either way.

Putting myself in the students' shoes, if I have a first-time teacher who is

  1. Interested in his subject,
  2. Knowledgeable in his subject,
  3. Actually knows how to use the subject, and
  4. Is interested in relaying the subject to me so that I can grasp it effectively and use it also,

I won't care in the slightest how many years or days he has been teaching. I will also learn whatever he has to teach like a shot.

Inversely, if I have an experienced professor who has been teaching for twenty years who is some combination of

  1. Overbearing,
  2. Stresses his own personal importance simply because he knows the subject,
  3. Belittles his students or regards them as inferior because they don't know the subject,
  4. Insists that his students must "record" (memorize) the fixed data he teaches without questioning it,

I will not actually learn anything from that teacher—and I certainly won't care how many years of "experience" he has. (And if I learn the subject at all it will be in spite of, not because of, the "teacher.")

So I would put the importance where it lies: on good teaching approach and attitude, not the "number of years of experience." Experience is only important if it results in competence. The test of a teacher is not how many years he has worked, but how many of his students have been successful in using the subject he has taught.


tl; dr: Be candid with your students, then do a good job teaching with maximal effectiveness and no one should care how long or short a time you have been teaching for.

5

From the student side of things - I had a math professor with her masters and a CS professor with his PhD.

In both cases it was their first time teaching, and in both cases there were several problems that I had in their classes. However, being able to talk to the professors about my problems as well as realizing that they were also learning how to teach the particular course made things better. The fact that they were willing to adjust a few things - some of the policies they had that were unfair, or some of the assignments to clarify things.

Of course, I would guess that most of your students just don't care, or will try to wheedle easier coursework out of you. They'll probably do that regardless of how new you are at teaching but suggesting that you're new at teaching that subject may give them the (in)correct idea that you're more likely to cave to their desires.

  • 1
    I do not agree with the last paragraph. – Jack Maddington Aug 20 '16 at 16:27
  • @JackMaddington If you have the understanding that the definition of average is the action that most people will take, I'm curious - what in your experience leads you to believe that most students actually care about their professors, or aren't trying to do the minimum amount of work possible to graduate? – Wayne Werner Aug 20 '16 at 22:19
3

More a personal anecdote than an answer - perhaps useful.

I'm a mathematician. When in the 1980's the better students at my state school wanted computer science more than they wanted mathematics and there was no computer science department I started learning computer science by teaching my way through the curriculum one course at a time.

I usually announced that at the beginning of the class. The better students were intrigued; I think some of the weaker ones wanted to write the Governor saying the school should provide instructors who knew the material.

I think on the whole the students were pleased that I was learning along with them. In time I worked my way up to some graduate courses and software consulting before returning mostly to my first love, mathematics.

Final note. On my first exam in the sophomore assembly language course one student got an A and I got only an A- because his answer to one question was much better than mine. He went on to a distinguished career in software; we're still friends.

1

Short answer: No. Don't tell them. Yet. But, this is not universal advice. Later on, do.

Whether it is a good idea to do now depends on your abilities.

As a person who has taught several classes, for educational institutions and also professional training (technology/security, for government/military), I was very skeptical at first. However, now that I'm confident, I'm not worried about saying such a thing.

Even if students lose faith in me in the first ten minutes, they will figure out soon (in the first twenty minutes hopefully, or the first forty minutes if I'm slow) that I know material very well... better than the vast majority of them (often 100% of them). In the rare case that a student knew some material better than me, they really knew the material very well (and taking the course was more of a general requirement than a really useful learning experience for them), and they recognized that I was sharing a lot of useful details that many people lacked. So, even if they had expertise, they still recognized mine and respected me.

If I found myself teaching something that I didn't know that well, I think I would be a bit more cautious. However, I enjoy sharing expertise that I have, so I gravitate towards situations where I do have mastery and can teach the material very well. So, in that case, I don't worry about it.

Another example is if I am new at a location. I have no problem admitting to that. I know that I might make a silly mistake based on my lack of knowledge about a location. However, people will see that I know the important things that I need to know. I know they will see that, so I am confident that they will quickly gain confidence in me. Therefore, I don't worry about that aspect.

Note that when I'm referring to my abilities, I'm not referring to just subject matter. I also know that I can teach, and share knowledge very effectively.

If you're feeling uncertain, I would suggest you portray yourself as positively as you can honestly do so. Once you give some information, you won't be able to retract it from that group of students. But, once you know you're doing well, and you know (without any doubt) that you will definitely do well for the rest of the class, then feel free to open up. Students will appreciate the honesty of the tacit admission that they don't get from some other instructors.

Since your situation sounds like you're concerned about what they think, don't unnecessarily volunteer things that you know could be used against you (even if the details might only be used against you in their minds). However, once your situation changes, you may wish to re-consider.

Well, I did. It worked well for me. As is the case for many scenarios, your results may vary.

1

If you feel you are a strong teacher in general, my answer is undoubtedly yes, mention it. Why? Honesty makes our lives much easier.

Imagine students ask you things that are not clear to you yet because you simply don't have the experience. There are always little subtleties like "is this special technique of computing this special type of integral required in the tests" -- you don't know, it's likely not in the syllabus, but your more experienced colleagues do know, because there's an agreement that the special thing never appears in the test.

What are you going to answer? Saying "it's not going to be there" is plain wrong because you don't know. Saying "it can be there" can make you lose your reputation very quickly if the students' friends are told in a parallel session that it's not going to be there and it really does not appear in the tests. Saying "I don't know" raises concerns about your qualities. The only thing you can say is "I don't know because I teach it the first time, I'll tell you in the next session".

And you can surely come up with other situations like this. The point is that it should be clear you're no worse a teacher because you teach it the first time. So tell your students it's the first time you teach the subject, and make your teacher job well.

  • Erm … ‘I don’t know because {I don’t set the exam/I haven’t prepared the exam yet}’ sounds equally valid? – Jan Aug 20 '16 at 20:11
  • @Jan Well, there are other things you don't know because you have never went through the course (I don't have any specific one at hand, will think about it later). And from my point of view, not setting the exam is no excuse to not knowing what's there; in general, you should know what the students are graded for, especially here where the teacher discusses the scores with the students and is allowed to modify the scores of his students. – yo' Aug 20 '16 at 20:17
0

No, don't tell. It never occurred to me to do so.

I was a PhD graduate student in chemistry at the U of Chicago. I was a volunteer TA/Lab instructor/proctor for undergraduate chemistry. The first session I set the hook by teaching my section how to study the material, how to study for the exams, and how take an exam. I also made liberal use of pop quizzes during the quarter.

My students were bright and motivated, so no problems there. I would open the lab on Saturdays for four hours so they could catch up and I could do some one-on-one tutoring as needed. (I also brought my own bookwork.)

My payback: The section consistently had the highest test scores in the class.

0

There certainly is a point in getting the students to know you. Make a good story of your personal experience as it stands, and as it leads up to you standing here, before them in the very moment. Don't dwell on things you you never did; that doesn't make a good story, and it is very difficult to present without making it sound as an excuse.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.