Teaching is hard, daunting sometimes, but also extremely rewarding when done well. It's one of those topics that has endless options, and based on numerous factors such as the school, subject, class size and even the students themselves, the teacher is obligated to make that class uniquely theirs. As we move through a post-modern world that is constantly changing economically, socially, politically, and environmentally, there are many new ways we can reach students in a personal way, and sometimes, touching a student with a personal adaptation of a topic in class is the only way to truly influence their lasting learning perspective. When we teach at the university level for the first time, questions swarm an active teaching mind. I'll address some of those to try and make the complicated task easier to navigate.
**I want to emphasize that I am a doctoral teacher's assistant who plays in the same ensembles (as a fellow student) as some of my students, so some of these points may not be applicable to applied or full-time professor positions due to the professional vs. peer dynamic.
Preparation is key
When I was appointed to teach my first university course, I was handed a finished syllabus and the simple advice "have fun!" What was I to do? I am a perfectionist, so when I heard "have fun teaching" my mind automatically freaked out with questions... but what do I teach first? how do I treat the students as a fellow student? how do I explain a syllabus that I didn't write? what about books and materials? what about classroom keys? what if I totally bomb this?! After reading over the lengthy syllabus 5 times, I still didn't have any idea what some of these assignments were. I didn't want to bother my Professor with constant questions past the two meetings we had, and I wanted to show that I had initiative to make this class my own while adhering to the university and state teaching standards.
My best advice in a situation like this one is don't let the lengthy explanations bring you down. It's overwhelming, but nothing you can't handle. I figured this out too late-- after reading the syllabus again and again I finally started to get a feel for the previous teacher's intent-- five days before my first class.
Explain it to yourself first. When I started explaining the syllabus to the class, I immediately got nervous and realized there were a LOT more assignments than I thought. This is where making changes to the syllabus is okay. Write it in YOUR words while maintaining the integrity of the underlying information. The first reading of the syllabus is important for the students to get a feel for what is expected of them, so you want to know every detail without overwhelming them as well as yourself.
Keep notes as you teach
As I went on teaching the class, I realized that a lot was going to have to change to fit my teaching style. The syllabus listed a schedule, which included topics for each class. In order to stick to the syllabus but also teach the way I felt was most effective, I made a list of topics on the white board every day, including assignments for the next class and quizzes coming up. If you are planning on teaching this course again in the future, I recommend keeping these lists in a notebook to remember your order of topics as well as suggest any changes in the future.
Keep your students' needs in mind, and provide help when necessary
My class, Woodwind Techniques, is divided into five sections, eight classes each, to learn to play and teach five different instruments. It's a LOT of information in a short amount of time. I learned about 4 weeks into the class that my students were also in a string techniques class, essentially learning the exact same information for a different instrument family. Despite my personal views on this administrative planning issue, this drastically altered my mindset towards my students. Practicing your OWN instrument to improve for your degree as well as preparing papers and homework for other classes is enough to fill a few hours a day. Add in learning two different instruments every 3 weeks, and you're looking at some serious time management skills and a huge demand for retaining information fast.
I started to spend more time in class on fundamentals, since I knew they might be overwhelmed with details. To aid with this, I kept track of all the notes we learned on a piece of staff paper after every class. At the end of the class section, I handed them a Finale document of all the notes we learned for two purposes: to study only these fingerings for the exam, and to give them a (nearly complete) chromatic scale to practice as a warm-up and apply their fingerings out of context.
Due to the complicated nature of my class, I felt it was unfair to ask so much of them without giving them a basic idea of the layout of how many assignments would count toward their final grade. I decided to make them a template of assignments to keep track of when they turned in all of their assignments. The key to this was to tell them: pace yourself. In a class like this one, where some assignments are dependent on when other students turn in their work (peer critiques), it became clear to me that this was more of a team effort, which teaches them accountability.
Pacing yourself isn't only for students. I have a tendency to get so excited about a topic I am passionate about (in the case of teaching woodwinds, it's literally everything), so when I would plan for my next class the night before, I had to remind myself not to talk about too much in class. Easier said than done! Teaching too many aspects of one topic in class (ex. going over 3 new fingerings, reed issues, maintenance issues, the clarinet family, clarinet history, and an assigned article with a playing quiz coming up in the next class) might end up having a negative result. It's easy for your need to pass on your enthusiasm to your students to turn into giving them every little bit of knowledge you have. To counteract this, you need to pace yourself and only teach the topics you have planned, and no more. There will be plenty of time to go over the details in future classes. Choose your priorities wisely!
Making changes and clear communication
As I went through each instrument section, it became clear to me that the template laid out for me in the syllabus I used would not work the same for every section. This concept can be applied to any subject-- if you are teaching a literature class, you wouldn't teach poetry the same way you teach a play, just because they are written in the same language. If you are teaching a social studies class, you can't teach the Civil War and the World War I using the same format just because they are both labeled Wars. There are concepts in each of these that just don't align due to specific circumstances involved in the subject. I started to make changes to the syllabus due to the amount of class time needed to properly guide the students through their journey of learning the instrument. Some changes included making playing tests into video submissions rather than taking up an entire class period. I used the free class period for review for the test both written and playing, which was extremely effective in ensuring my students received better grades all around.
The key to making changes is clear communication. I can't say I communicated perfectly; they had a ton of questions for me whenever something changed despite my clarity sent in an email AND describing it in class. The only thing you can do at this point is to reiterate the point in the same words every class.
The best way for the changes to settle in was to have students involved in the discussion. I would ask what would be more convenient for them-- video tests on their own resulting in more practice with me in class, or tests in class for personalized feedback, but less time to learn more as a class. They made their decision, executed it, and then I asked them what they thought about the change. The results were pleasantly well-spoken, adding in both good things about the solution we came up with as well as some setbacks. It became a learning experience for both of us, which was more than I could have asked for in a class like this.
Let students help!
The final advice I have on teaching your first class is to let the students help you teach. There are times when you are teaching a topic that you are only really capable of explaining one way. If you hit roadblocks, and you can see that some students understand what you are saying, have them explain it in their own words for the class. Every student experiences this at one time or another-- the teacher fumbles somehow, and a student wants to help explain it to the student who just isn't getting it, but depending on the teacher, the student could be too concerned about 'correcting' the teacher; as teachers we need to view this not so much as 'correcting' but as 'clarifying.' A student learning about the Civil War may be bored out of their mind learning dates and places, but once a student discovers they themselves or a classmate has ancestors who had a hand in one town's battle, their motivation immediately changes, and everything becomes clear when it's time to apply their knowledge. If we stifle this opportunity of peer knowledge sharing, the students have less potential when it comes to understanding, and more importantly, retaining the knowledge.
All over the world, new experimental types of teaching that philosophers and educators have been talking about for a century have one thing in common: the students need to be involved. People often teach how they have been taught. If you have sat through lecture after lecture in classes of 100 people, you might find yourself talking for an hour at a time, expecting vigorous note-taking. On the other hand, if you had the opportunity for a lower student/teacher ratio, you may teach a class by asking questions and creating discussions to retain information based on personal experience. There are merits to each style depending on the class topic and level, but as a new teacher, I believe a good mix of both lecture and discussion is key. Don't forget that your students have ideas too, and if you create an environment where you respect their opinions and needs, they will respect you right back and you will both reap the benefits of a great class! When all is said and done, my syllabus is going to drastically change next year based on my class outcome this year. I still have so many questions, and I look forward to exploring them through Professor advice as well as student needs and in-class experiences.
Ariel Detwiler, bassoonist, woodwind doubler, arranger, composer, student, film and soundtrack enthusiast and member of Duo 231 -- loves to discuss musical things, new technology or innovations and of course new compositions!