Ideally, you’ve been able to talk with the faculty member teaching your course well in advance of the semester and had time to think about the role of your section with the overall course (for more on this topic, see Chapter 2), but that may not have happened.
Nevertheless, you should still have time to do some research before the semester even begins. The most important things to be familiar with are the obvious—the course, the classroom, and the students.
Initial Research: Learn from Your Professors, Learn about Your Students, Check Out Your Classroom
Learn from lead professors, course heads, and seasoned TFs
Talk to your professor or course director first. Ask about her goals for the course and expectations of you and of your section. Get a copy of the syllabus, assignments, tests, and any other course materials. Make sure you have access to the Canvas site. Then talk to professors and TFs who have taught the course before. What did they like or dislike about teaching the class? How did they approach the first day? What materials did they use?
Learn about your students
Find out about the students who will be taking your course. How many should you expect? What skills and abilities will they bring to the class? What prerequisite courses can you expect them to have taken? What years will they be in?
Check Out the Classroom
There are a number of reasons to visit your classroom before the first day. First, you don’t want to get lost on the first day. If you’ve been given a key to your classroom, you’ll want to make sure that it works. The Building Codes and Campus Locations page will help you locate your classroom. Checking out the classroom ahead of time will help you to feel as comfortable as possible with your surroundings. Get to know the classroom.
- What space do you have to roam around in?
- How big is the room?
- Can you move chairs around to create a circle or arrange students in small groups?
- Do the lights and the technology work? Do you know whom to contact if they don’t work?
- If it’s hot outside, make sure you can get the windows open or work the air conditioning.
- If it’s cold outside, find out how the heat works.
Your Teaching Persona
How will you present yourself?
Perhaps the most important guideline is to dress comfortably. Wearing clothes that aren’t your style will make you feel stiff and uncomfortable. In general, more professional attire has the advantage of setting an authoritative, formal tone, but it might create distance between you and your students. Informal clothes will probably be more comfortable, but your students might take you less seriously. Ultimately, the decision of what to wear depends on what image you want to convey and what makes you most at ease.
How will students address you?
What are your students going to call you? There are no set guidelines, but the key is to make a conscious decision about how you want to be addressed and convey that to your students. Some students feel awkward referring to TFs by their first name, but TFs may feel awkward being referred to as Mr. or Ms. So-and-So. Just make sure you say at the outset how you’d like to be addressed. If you avoid the issue, your students are going to spend the entire semester trying to find ways to get your attention without addressing you directly. In their emails, they may end up adopting an awkward mix of formal and informal titles.
Where will you meet for office hours?
Even though most TFs do not have their own offices, you will need to come up with a plan about where and when you want to meet students. Standard places include the McDougal Center Common Room, Steep Café in the Yale Science Building, the Bass Library café and local coffee shops. If you do have your own or a shared office, it’s best to set your office hours there — there will be times when you or your students may have to convey sensitive information. But if that’s not possible and you do have to meet your students in a public setting, be as discrete as possible. Some TFs meet only by appointment, while others set up regular office hours at which students can drop in freely. The challenge is to make yourself available to students without letting your teaching overwhelm your work week. See “You’re Your Own Worst Enemy: Teaching and Time Management” in Chapter 2.
Essential Provisions for the First Day
Classrooms are usually well stocked with chalk and markers, but you can’t always count on either being there. Buy chalk or markers to keep in your school bag. Be sure, as well, that you bring any tools you count on to connect your laptop to the classroom technology, including connectors and cables.
TF Policy Sheet
In order to ensure that your expectations are clear, you should write up a policy sheet that details everything students are responsible for, but also check with your faculty member before issuing policies. At its most basic, an effective policy sheet includes your name, email address, grading policies, late policies, and office hours. This document may serve as a good template for you to tailor to your needs.
Most TFs prefer email for communicating with students, but if you choose to give out your phone number, make sure you’re absolutely clear about when it’s acceptable to call or text. Be clear and explicit about when you will accept phone calls or texts and when you will respond. “No phone calls after 8:00 p.m.” “I will respond to your email within 24 hours.” This is an important part of setting expectations – just as students need instruction in academic skills and content areas, they also need guidance on what the boundaries are for contact with you.
Student Information Sheet
Although you will want your students to introduce themselves to the class, it’s also a good idea to get some information from them on paper, including their name, email address, college, year, and major. You might also ask about their background in the subject. Finally, you may ask them to write a sentence or two about what their own personal goals for the class are—you can return to this in a midterm or final reflection. Many TFs use index cards for this, but a full sheet of paper may be necessary if you want a lot of information.
Though you need not script everything that you’re going to say on the first day, it’s a good idea to have a definite plan. Make a list of tasks that you have to accomplish and the order in which you plan to do them. You should probably allot some time for introductions, going over the syllabus, and teaching or discussing the material, though the order in which you do these is up to you. Certain tasks may take more or less time than you had initially imagined, so make sure you prioritize your tasks.