Things learned during my first experiences of teaching

This semester I have had my first experience of teaching BA and MA level students in an art school. I’ve taught a few different subjects, including cultural leadership and a whole course introducing year three BAs to foundations in academic arts research. I had no real idea how to teach before I… and I’m not sure that I know now.  But here are some things that I have learned and that may be of interest to other first time academic teachers.

    • No one is going to teach you how to teach. Weirdly when you start a PhD everyone seems to assume you will know what to do in front of a room full of easily bored BA students. In your first few semesters seize upon opportunities that will allow you to teach with a variety of colleagues who have different teaching styles. You can use their approaches to inform your own.


    • In general, the main gauge of an academic’s success is their research outputs and not the skill of their teaching. This means that many senior academics are juggling multitudes and do not have the inclination or energy to prioritise the work they do in the classroom. This is not the fault of any specific individual or institution, but of the system. From your more junior position you will find this frustrating, but it may also provide you with an opportunity to bond with your students in a way that some of your more senior colleagues can’t.


    • The difference in the levels of interest and ability across one classroom of students will astound you. Many students are present as a result of an enduring passion for the arts, others are simply there because they have to get a degree. You will spot the difference between these students within a couple of hours.


    • As a tutor, you will have to choose the level at which you pitch your classes. Usually you have to decide either to talk to the brightest students and hope the rest are inspired to raise their game. Or you go for the middle ground and hope that the smart students will be patient with you and the rest of the group. To date I remain totally clueless on which of these is the preferable option or how to resolve this conundrum. I’ll get back to you….


    • Those students who sit at the back of the class, with the disinterested body language and the glazed look? Those guys (and it usually is guys) are some of the smartest students you have got. They are so smart that your teaching protocols and Powerpoint slides can look extremely boring to them (and yes they are arrogant as well as smart). No matter how much these students annoy you, it is your job to get them engaged and for this you may have to think outside of the box. Don’t give up easily on these guys.


    • Powerpoint is not always your friend (but sometimes it is). Lets face it, Powerpoint is boring to look at and very easy to become reliant upon when you need to communicate lots of content. On days when you are on good form try to do something other than flick through PowerPoint slides. This means that on other days when you have no idea how to fill your class time, you can fall back on slide shows without making your students sick of the site of ariel font, bulleted lists and random images you dragged from the internet.


    • Your students cannot stay off Facebook. They love it and they would much rather scroll through it than listen to you. I don’t actually think that there is much you can do about this other than impose a full on ban on laptops, which arguably inhibits their ability to take notes on your stimulating lecture. I am a sucker for Facebook too and I felt like a bit of a hypocrite every time I objected to its use in class. But it definitely makes being a teacher much harder.


  • Teaching will take up a load of your time and exhaust you. Before you take on teaching work consider how much time you have spare and how much you can afford to subtract from the writing of your thesis (or whatever academic work you are doing). Get started on teaching during the early part of your PhD if you can, so that once you are writing up you can say no to classes you simply don’t have time to teach.

Featured image borrowed from wikimedia commons

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