A Beginners Guide to Teaching

Lessons learnt from my first term teaching.


As the December cold announces the end of this year, so too does it mark the close of my first term teaching. The past few weeks have been a fantastic introduction to pedagogy. No doubt, my experience has been enhanced as I have been teaching my dream module, a survey course of Twentieth Century literature from Conrad to Kureishi, with Woolf, Friel and Carter along the way. I have been fortunate enough to have complete control over seminars, to be able to plan and lead sessions and to be involved in marking. As ever with the PhD, there have been unexpected challenges and small successes that have meant the world. So what has teaching taught me?

Active Learning Works

I confess: I was suspicious of so-called active learning. I have always been the kind of student to prefer solitary reading, followed by a class discussion. I was educated just before the tipping point when hiked-up fees encouraged institutions to plough funding into strategic teaching modules and innovative approaches. Fortunately, I live with a handful of mature undergraduate students who convinced me that active learning really does create an impact. This has been measurable in the classroom. Small group discussions, slideshows, close reading activities, questionnaires and, dare I believe it, games, have all been helpful in communicating scholarly ideas, especially those that initially proved more difficult to understand.

Have a Closing Activity

Lesson plans are tricky beasts. Sometimes, I prepare two or three tasks and we barely get past the first, the students taking control and really getting their teeth stuck in. Sometimes, I prepare four or five and we have whizzed through them at breakneck speed, leaving a spare ten minutes at the end. Having a closing activity that be can discarded or called upon as and when needed prevents classes from finishing too soon, as well as allows conversations to continue, mature and round off naturally. These activities can be anything from a questionnaire to a difficult quotation that needs further unpacking.

Analogue Hasn’t Lost its Charm Just Yet

I am of the generation that grew up with the internet, my students are of the generation that grew up with a phone. This is a subtle difference that is noticeable within the bounds of the classroom. My students are unashamed of taking out their phones, often make notes on an app or Googling cultural reference points as they discuss the text. However, these differences do not seem to translate to teaching. I ventured to try digital learning: videos, polls, a walk down the streets of Mrs Dalloway on Google Maps. All received mixed responses. By contrast, one can see analogue learning working. Printed quotes that students can highlight, circle, discuss, write on, over and in the margins of encourage thoughtful discussion. Sheets of paper to note down conversations allow students to keep track of their ideas. These also provide a simple take-home learning tool, and their digital counterparts can be uploaded to the online learning platform.

Each Week is a Surprise

As a survey course, the module I am teaching features a diverse bunch of writers. We touch upon postcolonial tensions, feminist thinking, avant-garde experimentation and a clutch of other cultural frameworks. I had an idea about what the students would like, but often I completely missed the mark. Nineteen-Eighty Four was, of course, a hit, but Virginia Woolf and Angela Carter were tougher pills to swallow. The greatest surprise was the enthusiasm for A Taste of Honey, the gritty fifties kitchen sink play by Shelagh Delaney. In turn, modulating your seminar after it has begun is often necessary. Of course, hope for intrigue, but plan for boredom, disaffection and disinterest.

Talking Takes Time

This term, I have a quiet bunch of students. My first lesson was difficult, as no-one wanted to offer answers openly. As time passed, I realised that this is because very few of them previously knew each other (being, as they are, only at the start of their second years). Breaking them into small groups of 2, 3 and 4 has been key to overcoming this, fermenting discussion and allowing them to work with new partners each week. As we approach our final classes together, my shyest students have begun to share opinions, as well as openly disagree with one another. Humour also works to break down boundaries between educators and learners. I started my class on Mrs Dalloway by exclaiming ‘I think I shall by the flowers myself’ and it assuaged the mood early on. That class was particularly productive, even if the students didn’t get along with Woolf.

Pastoral Care is Crucial

During the first weeks of term, I noticed a student had stopped attending class. As procedure, I emailed them and asked if they required support, though I did not expect much in the way of reply. I was shocked by the email I got in return, as well as the students’ swift return to class and renewed vigour. Over just one term, this pattern has continued, reaffirming my belief in pastoral care. Experience surveys show that almost 87% of first year students find it difficult to cope with social or academic aspects of university life. Compounding this, as degrees become ever more necessary for students to get jobs, expectations are increasing on a sharp incline. Remaining mindful, as well as signposting helpful resources to your students, is often the most vital, and most rewarding, part of educating.

As I finish my first term teaching, I realise how vital this experience has been as a learning tool for myself, as much as my students. With the rise of digital technology, online learning platforms, fee increases and the marketisation of student experience (which we have to keep resisting), I fully expect such learning opportunities will continue in new and challenging ways. I am excited about the modules to come.