Being a PhD student can sometimes feel like a continual exercise in multi-tasking.
Researching and writing up a thesis is often interrupted, thankfully, by attending or organising conferences, research trips, and giving papers.
For me, one of the best and most rewarding of all extra-curricular PhD activities is teaching undergraduate students. Having some experience in teaching is now a prerequisite for most academic jobs and many universities offer PhD students the opportunity to work as undergraduate tutors.
Teaching your first class of undergraduate students, however, can be a rather intimidating prospect. I’d like to share my own experience about teaching for the first time and offer some tips for those of you who are thinking about giving it a go.
Before the First Class
There are lots of things you can do to help prepare you for your first class. I spent some time familiarising myself with the course handbook, noting down any course-work deadlines in my diary, and looking at how the tutorials fitted in with the lectures.
The Graduate School Director also organised a training session, which took us through the tutor-guidelines and offered a Q&A with an experienced postgraduate tutor.
Although we get paid for one hour’s worth of preparation time, we were told that tutors often take much longer to prepare, particularly if it’s a topic you’re not very familiar with. I soon discovered that this was all too true and spent at least a day going over the material for my first class.
There’s no golden rule for how long to spend preparing your class and you shouldn’t feel guilty if you spend more or less time preparing than one of your colleagues. Prepare for as long as it takes for you to feel comfortable leading the class, so long as you still leave plenty of time for your own research; you don’t have to know everything about the topic for the tutorial to go well.
As well as going over some of the assigned reading material and discussion topics, I found it helpful to have a few additional questions or a primary source prepared in case of extra time. For the first class especially, it really helps to have an ice-breaker activity ready.
As much as these used to make me squirm as an undergraduate, I’ve found that it can really help set a good atmosphere for the rest of the term if you get to know your students, and they get to know each other, early on.
Finally, postgraduate tutors usually take on a least a couple of hours’ worth of tutoring. It’s worth trying to schedule your classes one after the other, or on the same day, to help with time management.
Teaching uses up and creates a lot of energy, and I find it very difficult to get back to my desk afterwards. Scheduling it so that your teaching is all on one day makes it much easier to balance your time so that tutoring doesn’t take over your PhD.
The First Class
No matter how much you prepare, walking into a room of a dozen undergraduates can be a nerve-wracking experience. Being somewhat short in stature and accustomed to bus drivers asking me if I would like a child’s fare, I was anxious I might be mistaken for one of my students.
I got round this awkward issue by bringing a cup of tea and a big pile of handouts in with me. Whether or not the cup of tea was what marked me out as the tutor I do not know, but it certainly made me feel better!
Other people I know tend to wear “tutor outfits” on the days they teach. I also found it helpful to arrive just a few minutes before the class to give the students a chance to talk to one another first, which can make them more willing to talk to one another in the discussion.
The humble cup of tea, tasty drink and status marker!
Since I was teaching on a first-year course, I started by briefly explaining the purpose of the tutorials and how to prepare for them. It’s a good idea to draw their attention to course-work deadlines in the first class, since the first hand-in might not be all that far away.
During the ice-breaker, remember to introduce yourself and your research, which can help create a friendly atmosphere. It can be tempting to think ahead to the next activity while students are introducing themselves, but try to focus on what they’re saying.
Asking questions about why they chose to study the course can be a great way of getting to know your students and help you to remember their names. I took the register at the same time to try to reinforce who was who in my head.
Don’t panic if the conversation doesn’t flow straightaway. Try different questions or techniques, such as splitting the class into small groups. It helps to give credit where it’s due and to make gentle corrections where necessary so that students don’t feel embarrassed to contribute. Think about teaching styles that you found particularly effective as an undergraduate and try to imitate those techniques.
After the Class
It’s good to think about what went well and what didn’t after a class; but don’t be too harsh on yourself if something didn’t work as well as you’d planned. Often an activity will be brilliant with one group and a total disaster in another.
Teaching can be stressful and time-consuming, particularly when it gets to marking season, and it can be frustrating if students don’t put in the effort. Overall, however, getting to teach is an absolute gift and there are few things that can beat the rush of adrenaline you get when you walk out of the class knowing that it went really well. So make the most of it and good luck!
Felicity Loughlin is a 2nd Year AHRC-PhD candidate at Edinburgh University working on approaches to non-Christian religions in 18th-century Scotland. She tweets from @FelicityPL or find her at edinburgh.academia.edu/FelicityLoughlin
(Image 1: mentalfloss.com, Image 2: Alamy Photography)