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Welcome to the wonderful world of university professorship. I’m glad you’re here. Glad enough, in fact, that I’d like to see you stay. We need good people.
I was in your shoes only recently—I’m now in year four. And based on my experience, here are 10 pieces of advice that might make your life as an instructor a little easier—and, more important, that may benefit your students.
- Make friends. Befriend your department chair: they hired you, they make assignments and they know a lot. That means they know you and want you to succeed—and they have the power to make your life a lot better, too. Without doubt, you’ll want them in your corner sometimes. They are worth your investment of time.
Similarly, befriend the office administrative assistant, the custodians and anyone who is in the building frequently. For one thing, they can work magic for you in a tight spot. They deserve respect and kindness just like anyone else. Also, nonfaculty friends keep you grounded. Treasure them.
So dedicate some time to building relationships with staff and colleagues. Pencil in time for relationship building—like swinging by a friend’s office each day—even when you have no reason other than to share, “Today was a good day.”
- Invest in your TAs. If you ignore the money and the perks, the prestige and the office nameplate—once all the unimportant things are gone—the real reason we teach is to mentor young minds. I find that too many new faculty discount TAs. Let me give my view: TAs aren’t there to help you mold others—they are there as the primary opportunity of a mentee. Just in sheer exposure, few students will have as much face time with you as a TA. Train them. Teach them the important stuff. Give them freedom and responsibility as well as advice—and be wise enough to listen when they give you advice, too.
- Start an online class group. Create a Zoom or Slack channel. Or it could be a Discord server. You could also use Microsoft Teams. Heck, you could probably jury-rig a Facebook group. Doesn’t matter. Just make one. Why? For one thing, the camaraderie is great: post a meme, share an article (one that isn’t required) or even show off a picture of your cat or kids. Students will appreciate a low-stakes way to interact with peers and interface with you.
But there’s a more practical benefit: a class chat will save you oodles of time. What’s the least meaningful part of the job? Emails. What are the least meaningful emails? The ones that could be answered by reading the syllabus. So tell students, “Great question, ask in the class chat,” and watch as they begin to answer each other’s questions.
- Read your student evaluation scores exactly once a year. RateMyProfessor, or RMP for short, is a lot of things, but flawless isn’t one of them. A friend tells me that—every six months—he goes back and rates a professor he can’t stand from his college days. (He’s been finished with college for more than a decade.) An article I read recently suggests that better-looking teachers get higher ratings, while some demographic subgroups face unjustly lower scores. In both cases, the evaluations have little if anything to do with teaching quality!
In other words, RMP is not perfect—but it needn’t be so to be useful. Meaningful feedback in college is so rare that even something as flawed as RMP is a useful source if you can calibrate the responses you get a bit. I now require students to show me evidence that they’ve submitted an RMP rating, whatever it is, because the feedback is just so useful. I read every review with care—never personally but always seriously. And I’ve improved a great deal for it.
- Plan for the long haul. I read a paper recently that found that having to prepare for numerous courses makes teachers in the K-12 classroom less effective. I buy it—and for higher ed, too. So I recommend that you do what you can to teach the same few classes for a good long time. You won’t regret it. Your classes will get better and better with each pass, and it will take less and less mental energy.
- Practice good mental health hygiene. Of all the heavy lifting of being a professor, perhaps the heaviest was the mental health load I had to carry. I was well prepared—and I was still totally underprepared. Here is a smattering of ideas on the subject.
- Know when you need to refer out. You aren’t a therapist. Pretending to be is dangerous—for your students’ sake, and for your mental load, too. You may not be able to repair cavities, but you can certainly preach the gospel of daily flossing and careful brushing. Students in college don’t always take care of their sleep, remember to exercise or schedule their time well. Similarly, you can help prevent mental health problems by encouraging good mental health hygiene.
- Write the hard letters before day one. Recently I wrote a set of draft letters: death in the family, visa trouble, marriage festivities and so on. In the calm of the presemester, I didn’t feel the crunch of finals or the stress of midterms, and I had the luxury of care and attention that wouldn’t be mine later in the semester. I saved drafts in a special folder in my email, and I use them as a starter for a personalized and thoughtful email when the time inevitably comes. This is not only a huge time saver, but it also helps me show some grace to others during a hard time with more emotional presence than I can always muster midsemester.
- Preach resilience. College life is hard. We should be sensitive to the extreme strain that is the daily reality for so many people. We will sometimes have an obligation to lighten their load—but we will always face an obligation to help them become tough enough to succeed in the challenge.
- Be honest. Students know you’re new. They’ll cut you slack if you do your best. So do your best and tell them the truth if you make a mistake.
- Clean your office. The point isn’t about being meticulous; it’s about establishing new habits. Set a few. Maybe it’s cleaning your office for five minutes each day, or reading a book to stay current in the field, or introducing yourself to a new student in the hall once a week. There is no better time to set good habits than now.
- See yourself as an architect. One of the best bits of advice I’ve gotten about teaching is this: stop thinking of yourself as a performer on a stage. Think of yourself as an architect building a great experience. Most teachers focus on the execution: the lecture, the presence, the voice, the jokes and the engagement. You should focus on these things—but you should focus equally on course architecture: assessments, assignments, readings, required textbooks and the aesthetics of your Canvas course, to name only a few.
A great teacher with a disorganized LMS is still going to produce a middling learning experience. A medium-but-trying teacher with an accessible LMS is going to get strong reviews, because it’s the LMS where students interface with the bulk of the course—and where assignments and tests and all things anxiety-inducing happen.
Nearly every university has a center for teaching and learning: use it. Ask the staff for feedback. You’d be wise to ask someone to observe you teach a class, but you’d be even wiser to have someone look over your Canvas course.
Oh, and if I may be so bold as to step briefly onto my moral soapbox, don’t require textbooks you won’t use. Please. I beg you.
- Learn from the best. Finally, a biased tip from me, an education faculty member: get to know some education faculty. They probably know a thing or two about teaching and navigating academic life that might come in handy.
In addition, every department has teaching geniuses. Find them. Identify the people that students rave about. Be friends with them. Look up their scores if you can, and if you can’t, use RateMyProfessor. Learn from them. Emulate them. Be blunt about it: “I hear really good things. Mind if I observe you?”
This will make you a better teacher. And, as mentioned, it will also give you really cool friends.