How to Survive Teaching your First Semester

If you’re reading this, you likely just got the job as a TA, and you’re about to start teaching college English for the first time (or you’re Todd about to give me a grade for whatever I say next.

First of all, you belong here. During my first semester, I struggled with feeling like I was right for the program. As I looked around, it seemed all of my colleagues were somehow smarter than me. I felt like an imposter about to walk into a classroom and pretend to teach. I wondered why I was even there. Just remember, the program is actually pretty competitive, and the department selected you because they wanted YOU. You are way smarter than you feel right now.

Second of all, do NOT take 12 credit hours. I made the mistake and thought grad school would be just like my undergraduate program. Between teaching and my classes, I never had time to sleep and had to take an incomplete in one course. Just take 6-9, and enjoy the ability to dig deeper into your work.

Now that all of that is out of the way, get hyped. Teaching is one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences.

The Challenge:

When I came into the program, I expected the English department to hold our hands and walk us through the process of teaching ENG110. There is virtually zero hand-holding. However, they give you the freedom to develop your curriculum and teaching style how you want to. You can teach how you love to learn. The hard part is sometimes you are not sure how you are going to create all of the assignments, teach them, grade them, and get your own work done. Then, you also have to worry about whether or not your assignments prepare your students for the portfolio at the end of the semester.

I strongly suggest you work BACKWARD while you are creating the curriculum. Have an idea at the beginning of the semester how you are going to prepare students for the portfolio throughout the semester. I also suggest putting together a collaboration team so you can develop the content together and relieve the individual burden of lesson planning. You’ll be surprised how much time you save by meeting for an hour once per week. You also get great ideas and reading materials from your peers.

Grading is a pain in the ass. If you set up your course as the department suggests, you’ll have to grade an assignment about every week. That’s around 12 hours of grading each week alone. Come up with a system that allows you to grade the SWAs quickly. Do not try to make a detailed rubrics for each of them. Keep it holistic, and give robust feedback instead–verbal feedback is faster and sometimes better. I even recommend having one SWA each unit graded on completion only, but have them use it as a draft to get peer feedback instead.

The Rewards:

Your class is the only one small enough where students create relationships with their teacher. Most of their classes are in huge lecture halls where there are too many students for the teacher to know who they are. They trust you and will come to you for advice. It means they also want to create connections in your class. Take advantage of it; make it a point to learn their names, and give them opportunities to learn about each other. Transparency is the healthiest ingredient for a safe and engaging community. Tell your students how you feel, what you want, when they exceed your expectations, and when they do not meet them. If you make their education a discussion, you’ll be surprised how much they want to be involved in their learning.

Your students will open up to you about things they have never shared. If you create opportunities to express themselves through the assignments, you will be humbled by their experiences. My students’ touching and heart-breaking stories made me cry. At first, they’ll be reluctant to share, nervous that their voices do not matter. After you share some of your own experiences, your students will open the trust gates and write works that amaze and inspire you. Let them know how their writing makes you make you feel special.

You might not feel like your students are learning anything. Sometimes, you will doubt your value–after a rough day in class, or after they utterly fail an assignment. Believe me, when they turn in their portfolios, you’ll feel amazing that you played such a pivotal role in how much they learned. In their final portfolios, my students gave me direct credit for the things they learned, and I was overwhelmed with to feel-goods.

In the end, you are not teaching them “English;” as much as you ae teaching them how to transition into a new life, a harder one. Approach them with love and compassion as they find their way, and you’ll leave a more significant impact than you could imagine. At the end of the semester, one of my students wrote the following passage in his portfolio:

There was so much more than just English learned in our class. We learned sympathy and compassion. The real value of a good conversation. The fact that everyone struggles sometimes and you can’t ever give up. We learned that vulnerability is a good thing and it creates a strong connection [between people]. I never thought in a million years that on the last day of my English 110 class that I would have such a strong connection with such an amazing teacher that it would be hard for me to leave that very classroom. A hug was not a goodbye or even a see you later; it was a thank you. A thank you for changing my view on literature and teaching me there is more in writing than just words. My very first experience of college was that very classroom, and it has affected me in a good way. I probably won’t remember a single thing about the course content itself when I graduate, but you can bet I will remember the vivid conversations, the funny jokes, and the awesome group of people who sat in room 212 with me at 10:00 am every Monday, Wednesday, Friday in my first semester of college.

Sample Syllabus

There are a few things you’ll notice set my syllabus apart:

  • I collaborated with my peers to offered their office hours.
  • I placed the departmental statement about civil disobedience at the top.
  • I offer students unlimited revision on Major Writing Assignments (MWAs).
  • Students are given absences for missing a conference.

Genre Analysis MWA

We used this for Sequence 2 MWA. This came after students interviewed a professional to learn about writing in their field.

  • Students reconceptualize genre in their professional lives.
  • Students see intersectionality of composition skills in their lives.
  • Students grapple with citing uncommon sources.
  • An easy and engaging way to introduce analysis.

Angle Mini Lesson

This mini-lesson uses social media to show students a quantifiable way to analyze audience. It reveals surprising habits and values (angles) for students to apply to their writing.

  • Discover audience statistics with Facebook analytics.
  • Know their jobs, salaries, education, hobbies, favorite stores and more!
  • Rewrite an article using information from the audience analysis.