Teaching for those who can’t – 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! We are well into it now I suppose. 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 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:mike fern wood

  • 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?


Photo Credit: Creative Commons/Josh Pesavento & Mike Fernwood

3 thoughts on “Teaching for those who can’t – Lauren

  1. Are you a PhD student who teaches? First time teacher? Nervous, tired, or just lost? This reblogged post from Lauren at PhD Life Blog (Warwick University) offers some great advice.

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