How to Make the Most of Your First Year of Teaching

Young professor with students

Crowdsourcing advice for new faculty

This fall, thousands of new college teachers walked into their very own classrooms for the first time. They’ve ignored the butterflies, handled the inevitable technical malfunctions with aplomb, and learned to successfully navigate both the campus web portal and the faculty parking lot.

But there’s so much to learn, and none of it has to do with course content. They’ve had some real affirming moments, but most days feel like a race to stay a step ahead of the students. They feel like imposters … worried that their students, their colleagues, and, worst of all, their department chair will discover that they really don’t know how to teach.

If you’re an experience faculty member, you know the feeling, you were there once. The purpose of this post is to crowdsource advice for new college instructors. What lessons do new teachers most need to learn during the first year? What tips can you share to help make their first year of teaching a little more manageable? What nugget of wisdom do you wish someone told you as you embarked on your career? Or, what advice helped you deal with the inevitable ups and downs of that first year? Please share in the comments section.

Advice on advice
A word of caution for new faculty members. As you begin your teaching journey, you’ll likely have all sorts of people offering you all sorts of advice. As a novice, there’s a tendency to accept advice at face value. After all, you’re just starting out and the person offering advice has been teaching for years. But not all advice is equally good. And although it’s shared with the best of intentions, it might not make sense for you, your content, or your students. So, how do you decide what’s worth acting on, what could be adapted, and what should be discarded?

Maryellen Weimer offers the following suggestions:

Does it make sense? Most importantly, does it make sense given what you’ve experienced as a student? You’ve spent time in lots of different courses. Is the advice being offered something that would help you learn?

Next, does it make sense given what you teach, how you teach, and who you’re teaching? Trust your gut, but don’t rely on it exclusively. Is there a way you can try out the advice partially, put it to the test in just one course or select a certain component of the advice?

Does the advice seem like an interesting possibility, but you’d like to learn more? With virtually every recommendation offered new teachers, more can be learned about it. Teaching is an old (dare I say ancient) profession with a vast amount of literature that supports different activities and approaches. All of it is at our finger tips. There are blogs, online resources (we have some biases here), and websites. There are journals, virtually every discipline has one, if not two or three. And there are cross-disciplinary, topic-specific publications (Active Learning in Higher Education, for example). And let’s not forget books.

You can also learn more by asking others, which is especially important if the advice isn’t proposing something specific you should do but rather ways to think about yourself as a teacher, about learning, and about your students. You stand to learn more and make better decisions about what advice to follow if you make purposeful decisions about who you ask.

  • If the advice is about how to teach, ask someone who teaches sort of like you do. Does that teacher think it’s good advice? Has the teacher ever tried it?
  • If the advice proposes a particular strategy, talk to someone who teachers the same courses that you do. Does that teacher think the approach would work with the content?
  • If the advice sounds good, but you’re not sure you’ve had enough experience to pull it off, ask someone who was in your shoes just a few years ago for feedback.
  • If the advice proposes a specific policy and you wonder how students would respond, ask them.

Is the advice something you’ve never thought of before? Does it sound crazy? It could be, but don’t rule out a different idea automatically. Think more about it. Maybe talk to others. Keep it in your mind. Most of us who’ve taught around the block and back have changed how we think about teaching. We offer advice we wouldn’t have taken when we were first teaching. Keep your mind open. Teaching stays fun if you keep learning more about it and finding new ways to improve.