All 4 entries tagged Teaching

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February 04, 2012

Learning to teach – by Ruth

I've been a bit worried lately that I spend too much time teaching. When I say that, I don't just mean the time spent teaching my actual single, two-hour seminar, but the time spent preparing, reading, and talking about techniques and approaches with my fellow sessional tutors in the department.

Ultimately the "teaching experience" takes up a lot of my time, but that only matters so much: I'm doing okay for jobs (and - therefore - money) right now and have five years within which to undertake my part-time PhD. I nevertheless keep worrying that I spend "too much" time on teaching preparation, and feel strangely guilty about the amount of time it takes away from my actual research.

However, over the past fmortar boardew days I've begun to realise that all of this time is very important. After all, this is my first year of teaching, and we recieve very little training. I'm ultimately learning to teach right now. That process is important, and deserves my time! It's a skill I'll hopefully be able to draw upon throughout any academic career.

This isn't to say that I should always be spending so long simply on preparation. I strongly believe that many postgraduate sessional tutors are shockingly underpaid, and that there are unfair pressures on academics to perform supreme feats of preparation that go considerably beyond what's expected of them in their contracts. I'm instead reflecting upon my own personal situation: in this time, in this place, I really should be putting the time into getting things right, and hopefully that experience will serve me well into the future.

September 07, 2011

Teaching – For Those Who Can't – by Lauren

Ahhh, autumn! The leaves are starting to turn golden and the winds are a-blowing, and for us here at Warwick that can only mean one thing - the start of a shiny new academic year! Things are already starting to get a little busier on campus after the summer lull, and for a certain fraction of PhD students this can only mean one thing: teaching looms.

I'm going into my third year this year, so I've decided not to teach so as to have some time to write my actual thesis (which, as I described in my last blog, got rather neglected last year). However, I do remember that this time last year I was absolutely terrified as term approached. I spent the whole of September dreading the moment when I would have to stand in front of a roomful of students and take control. I imagined staring blankly at their 19-year-old faces, knowing them to be far cleverer, more streetwise, more confident than I, and certain that they would have seen more films, read more books and have shinier hair.

This blog is for all my colleagues who are teaching for the first time this year. This is by no means a comprehensive, official or even sane view of teaching, but it does contain all the stuff that I wish someone had said to me 12 months ago. In no particular order, here goes.


For some, this won't be a problem, but I think this was the single biggest obstacle to me doing my best teaching. And a lack of self-confidence isn't an easy thing to overcome. If it was, there wouldn't be a multi-squillion pound publishing industry devoted to it.

That said, there are things that can help.

  • smile - it sounds cheesy, but smiling will actually lower your blood pressure, and release endorphins, natural pain killers and serotonin - you can actually trick your body into changing your mood. Smiling will also make you appear more confident to others, and makes people warm to you more quickly.
  • avoid caffeine - no matter how tired you feel, there's no way that the jitters will make you seem any more confident to your group. Try a herbal tea instead.
  • fake it til you make it - urhg, it's a horrible phrase, but it is so, so useful! I'd say this is the single most useful technique I've tried for building confidence. Go into that seminar room with the intention of acting like an assured, enthusiastic, dauntless teacher. Pretend to do this, no matter how much you feel it is a lie. After a few weeks, you'll realise that what you've done is actually become a confident teacher! Pretend to be enjoying yourself. One day, you'll come out of a seminar realising that you actually did enjoy yourself. Blimey.


This is somewhat of a divisive issue in teaching. I know tutors who go into a seminar without any plan at all, and let the discussion develop. I know others who plan each seminar literally down to the minute.

There is no right or wrong way.

Develop a method you feel confident with. Mine tended to be somewhere in the middle. I didn't like to feel I was going in "naked" so I'd have:

  • a rough outline of how I saw the discussion developing
  • questions to fall back on if discussion dried up
  • a note of anything that I thought we absolutely must mention

I tried to keep this to one side of A4 - anything more is difficult to read while keeping the discussion going at the same time.

Though planning is important, the nature of seminar teaching means that flexibility is key, so be prepared to 'go with the flow' and don't be too uptight about sticking to seminar plans (your blood pressure will thank you for it, as will your students).

The Aftermath

Almost as important as what you do before your seminars is what you do afterwards, at least in the first few weeks of teaching. This is the point at which you will reflect upon your teaching, think about what worked, what didn't and what you would change next time.

Firstly, if you're anything like me, you will be exhausted! Three back-to-back hours of thinking on your feet, leading intellectual discussions and trying not to let on how nervous you are, well, that can take its toll! If it can be helped, try not to schedule anything too mentally taxing for after your teaching sessions.

Secondly, you will want to discuss your seminars. You will want to discuss them loudly, at length, and to anyone who will listen. You might even want to swear about them. It's a good idea to have someone on hand to do the post-mortem with. This can be anyone you trust, although I have found that other teachers tend to be the best qualified at dealing with seminar-induced rage/glee/hyperactivity.

Some suggestions for post-seminar wind-downs:

  • arrange to meet some other teaching assistants in the pub after you've all finished work, so you can swap tales and commiserate/congratulate
  • get your jammies on, get into bed with a cup of tea, and get your best friend on the phone for a natter
  • get on the PhD Life blog and tell us how it went!

Either way, talking about teaching is really important - it's one of the best ways to dissect your performance, the progress of your students and seek advice on how to get things to go better next time. Equally, if you've had a seminar that passed off beautifully, and all your students were engaged and eager, it's really great to have an unresentful friend there to share the accomplishment with.

Finally, once you've discussed your seminars, try to let them go. Don't take up valuable headspace worrying over one little thing you said, or one comment that you should have corrected, or one raised eyebrow from a cocky student. They won't be worrying about the lesson once they've left the classroom, and, providing you know that you tried your best, neither should you. Some rigorous physical activity might help - nothing quite whips away stresses like tearing up the football pitch or zipping down the road on your bike.

Staying Sane

Rest assured that, however nervous you are right now, teaching can and will get much easier as you practice. Remember the first time you tried to ride a bike? You probably kept falling over, putting your feet on the ground, and wobbling. No one expects perfection from you, except you.

If you can, try and enjoy the experience. There is no feeling at all like the one where one of your students makes an astute and well-thought out observation prompted by your question, or when they expand upon your point and lead the discussion in a new direction. There's a reason so many people go into teaching and stay there, and it's not to do with money, status or the paperwork!

It took me until my second term of teaching to get to actually like doing it, but once I did, I was a much better seminar leader. It took me by surprise too ("What is this?! Job satisfaction?!").

Finally, don't ignore your feedback. While students moaning about early buses from Leam or the screening rooms being cold might not be useful to you, there will almost certainly be comments that will help you think about how to improve your seminars, be it in terms of atmosphere, level of formality, or inclusivity. And, who knows, it might just say something nice! (Which brings me to another, closely related point - don't read twenty brilliant feedback reports and then agonise over the one that says something negative. Just don't.)

So that's my hour's worth of thoughts on the matter. There's almost certainly stuff I've missed out. And most of it isn't particularly practical advice, but I think sometimes it just helps to know that other people have felt the same as you.

Are you starting teaching this year? How are you feeling about it? I'm happy to give an honest answer to any queries/questions that you might have.

Any more old timers out there have any teaching advice?

P.S. If you're still concerned after reading this, or you just want some helpful advice and tips, the Teaching Grid works with both new and experienced teachers - why not pop in and have a chat with them on Floor 2 of the library?

August 18, 2011

Paper Trail – by Lauren

Having finished teaching, I was unceremoniously evicted from my departmental office space last week, a hasty removal which involved me shoving piles and piles of loose A4 into my rucksack along with my E.T. mug and Twinings fruit tea. Today, I decided it was finally time to face the music and try to impose some kind of order on all those sheets of paper.

Neatness has never been my strong point, as my mum, former housemates and current partner will no doubt testify. I like living life on the edge of panic, never quite knowing where my keys/phone/mascara/library books are. So all this sorting out, leafing through and recycling is not only tedious, but uncharacteristic.

However, as I sit here surrounded by folders and dividers, consigning reams and reams of handwritten notes to kerbside collection, a picture begins to emerge. For most of the stuff that I have removed from my office is categorically not to do with my thesis. The vast bulk of it is teaching related: prep notes, seminar plans, registers, essay feedback. The rest is a mix of stuff related to various research groups that I participate in or administrate. The rest of it was bags of sweets.

office chaos

 a genuine, unposed picture of the chaos in my home study at the moment...

What this tells me then, was in part what I already suspected, which was that my thesis took a serious backseat last year. Seriously, a whole office full of paper, and barely one sheet with actual thesis work on it? Incredible. Seeing it laid out, physically, in front of me like this actually makes me feel quite differently about the work I've achieved. Rather than beating myself up about how little thesis-work I did last year, I am marvelling that I did anything at all, and actually feeling proud of the chapter that I somehow produced, without, apparently, leaving any trace of it in my workspace.

It also makes me feel much more positive about my current work and the months to come. I've returned to my thesis like an old friend, and we're spending a lot more time together this summer, something which I hope to chat to you all about in another blog very soon. Until then, I have a whole lot of hole-punching to do!

July 21, 2011

Those who can teach – by Izzy

I have to be honest I really didn’t like teaching at the beginning of last year. But after Christmas and certainly half way through the second term I was beginning to really enjoy Friday mornings 9 – 11. Now I am quietly looking forward to teaching next year. Partly I think I drew the short straw teaching research methods on a Friday morning. On a good week I had about half the class turn up. Those who did show up were usually hungover, non-communicative and had not thought about doing the reading or going to the lecture. At the beginning I found this really hard to deal with. However I decided to try finding other ways to engage them, I found videos really worked with my group (thanks to youtube and sociological cinema who were my lifelines) and after a 15 min video they were so much more engaged and willing to discuss the issues. Also dividing the reading list up so everyone had responsibility for just one reading and reporting back to the rest of the group worked well too.

I think my breakthrough came when I realised that it was not my responsibility to ensure they had done enough work, went to the lectures or cared about ethnography. My job was to facilitate their learning, something which I feel much more comfortable doing now. It was through discussions with other seminar tutors that I realised this.

The reason for this post in the middle of the summer is that yesterday afternoon I attended a workshop run by Student Learning Centre. It was well worthwhile, and not only for the food. They run a ‘Introduction to Academic and Professional Practice course’ which is a 12 month programme offering support for teaching. There are several mandatory workshops and then you can pick aspects you wish to focus on such as, ‘teaching for creativity’ and ‘teaching inclusively’. I have already signed up to do the course next year and for anyone who is going to be teaching I would suggest that you explore the course too!


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