Reflecting on Your First Day of Teaching

Woman sits at desk full of stuff and looks out window reflecting

An interesting exercise we do during our faculty development program is reminisce about the very first day we taught as a teacher. It might be about a time when you were a research student and were replacing a teacher on leave or your start as a new teacher on a temporary position. I have collected several first day stories of teachers’ experiences in Indian classrooms and found them to range from hilarious to somber. But surely some patterns emerge from this collection.

Whether you are a new teacher or an experienced one, close your eyes for a moment and relive that first lecture again. There are many lessons we can draw from the memory of that first lecture.

First day nerves

One frequent reporting is that of being nervous on the first day. Many teachers are candid enough to acknowledge their fear—some said their anxiety levels were so high their hands and legs were physically shaking, and they had difficulty standing steady. One teacher recalled that while shaking, he tried to steady himself by holding the dais in the classroom, and the dais itself started to shake violently, amplifying and displaying to the class his mental state. As I imagined his predicament, one question came to mind, What is the root cause of this fear? Stage fright? Performance anxiety?

With experience, we know the classroom is not a dangerous place to be, but on that first day, several realizations may dawn upon us simultaneously:

  • There are numerous eyes watching us.
  • There is effort in recalling your subject knowledge.
  • The physical act of teaching the subject can feel debilitating.
  • There may be apprehension of meeting teaching expectations.
  • There is uncertainty of keeping the class in order.
  • You may feel the pressure of making a good first impression.
  • There is a feeling of authority, responsibility, and duty.

All of these thoughts come rushing to our head, increasing our adrenalin level making us feel giddy, anxious, nervous, or excited. With years on your side, you may have been able to master the simultaneity implicit in your pedagogical performances, and teaching has become a smooth act. But remembering those uncomfortable moments can jolt us out of our complacency and shake off the lethargy that sets in by practiced routine and daily habit.

The overprepared teacher

Most teachers recall they went to their first class overprepared. They had studied the topic thoroughly, made notes, memorized material, researched well, and left no stone unturned prepared to teach in the most brilliant way. But the experience on the ground came up as something different. Some teachers finished their material halfway through the class and were at a loss on how they should spend the rest of the class time, while others went on to speak for the whole period without looking at the blank expressions on the faces of their students, only to be told after class that the students did not understand the lecture. Many teachers candidly acknowledged that they felt inadequate by the end of the first day despite having a very good hold on their subject. They realized that although they knew the discipline quite well, they had no inkling of how to deliver that knowledge to students.

One teacher recalled, “I thought I was the hero in the classroom. With my educational degrees, freshly minted out of a university, I was going to be the smartest and most effective teacher; however, as I grew in the profession, I realized the student is the hero in the classroom and mere educational degrees don’t guarantee effectiveness of teaching.”

Tracking your teaching arch from novice to professional can help in taking active cognizance of the practices you have adopted or adapted to without being conscious. It makes us identify the gaps in our understanding of pedagogy with which we entered the profession, and check whether we have been able to bridge them or whether those lacunae still exist. We can make a comparison of how we have evolved as a teacher, and rehashing this realization helps in retaining the right practices and shedding off the obsolete ones.

The newbie

New teachers have sometimes been bullied or harassed from students asking uncomfortable questions or creating disorder in the class which may be unmanageable by inexperienced teachers. Students can become aware of the vulnerabilities of a new teacher and will sometimes pick on the unsuspecting teacher. It is perhaps this feeling of defenselessness that a memory can haunt us on the first day of teaching. In my collection of stories, there are several such pranks played by students.

As you continued to teach, did you gradually realize that having useful skills of wit, quick repartee, thinking on your feet, ingenuity, and generating creative solutions were needed to sustain your teaching profession? Could you garner all of this in your complete oeuvre?  If you can write down the ways in which you have evolved as a teacher since that first day, it can become a record of your professional development. It can also be used to fill in the gaps that are still left and determine where you can improve as a teacher.

The elated professor

On the first day, many teachers, despite their novice attempts, also remember the elation they felt in facing the class, a feeling of joy, an uncanny connection with the students, and a fulfillment in the act of teaching.

Realize how far you have travelled from being that novice. Retracing that journey is also a celebration of the milestones you have crossed as a teacher, the challenges you have overcome, and the transformations you have underwent.

Remembering the flush of excitement and the joy you felt on that first day can also rejuvenate you and remind you why you still continue to be a teacher despite the exhaustion and the uncertainty that may emerge some days.

Dr. Jayanti Dutta is faculty in the Human Resource Development Centre, Panjab University (PU), Chandigarh, India. She has executed more than 150 faculty development programmes and has been instrumental in the training of more than 5,000 teachers. In addition to carrying out her professional duties of teaching, research, and mentorship of higher education teachers, Dr. Dutta has performed various roles in her academic career such as educational content developer, administrator, teacher-activist, policy maker, and fellow of the university governing body, the Senate.