Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

The First Day

Goals, Expectations, and the Learning Environment

Discuss the Goals of the Section

With luck you’ve had some time to think about your goals for section (see Chapter 2 for more about preparing to teach). What is the purpose of your section? How does it relate to the lecture and reading? Be as specific and detailed in your answer as possible. You might find the following questions useful in your thinking:

  • How will your lab or section help students with the papers they’ll write or exams they’ll take?
  • If students participate in your section, what will they be able to do that they can’t do now?
  • Are there some big questions to explore?

The important thing is to think about your section from the students’ point of view. What’s in it for them? Share the answers with your students so they know why they’re there.

Be Clear about Expectations

On the first day of class, you set ground rules that the students will hold you to for the rest of the semester. If you take a lax attitude toward grading, attendance, or class participation, your students will take advantage of it. Make sure you’re explicit about what you expect from them. It’s a good idea to remind students of your expectations throughout the semester, but especially at the very beginning.

Establish a Safe Environment

Ideally, your students need to feel that they can speak freely in the classroom; if they have questions that they want to raise or points they want to make, they should feel free to do so. This is essential in all classrooms, but it becomes particularly important in sections that deal with controversial issues (as in Sociology, History, Political Science, Multivariable Calculus).

In order to establish a safe environment, you should set ground rules right from the beginning. If you’re going to be discussing hot-button subjects, you need to make sure that everyone will respect everyone’s opinions. One strategy is to have the students draw up and agree to a list of guidelines for discussion. (This might not need to be done at the very first section, but the subject should be broached, if only to give your students the heads-up.) Whenever you do this, distribute copies of the rules to all of the students at the next section, or make them available on the course website.

Introducing Yourself to Your Students and Learning Your Students’ Names

Getting to Know You

Don’t introduce yourself just by name. Tell your students something about yourself: your scholarly interests, your background, why you’re teaching the course, anything to let them get to know you a little. 

Some TFs like to have their students introduce themselves. This may not work with large sections, but it can be a great way to get a class to loosen up. Icebreakers, as long as they are reasonable in length, are a good use of class time: they can be completely informal or related to the course material in some way. Be sure not to ask questions that are too personal. 

One common strategy is to have the students pair up, talk for a few minutes, then introduce each other to the class. Another approach is simply to ask the students individually to say their name, year, and something unique about themselves. 

Begin Learning Names

Unless you have a very small class or a very good memory, you’re probably not going to learn all of your students’ names on the first day. However, here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  1. Draw up a seating-chart of the room beforehand and fill it in as the students introduce themselves. Though your students may not sit in the same place for the next class, it’s a good start.
  2. Ask the students their names when they ask questions, and repeat their names when you answer them.
  3. Use the Photo Roster on Canvas and begin memorizing the photo array.

Teach Something!

A substantial chunk of your first class will be taken up by bureaucratic details (introductions, going over a syllabus or TF policy sheet, etc.), but it should not deal with these alone. Try to teach the students something. Give them an idea of what they’re going to be studying. You might even consider doing this right at the beginning of class—in many cases it would be far more interesting to jump right into the subject at hand than to begin class by simply reading out loud from the syllabus.