January 26, 2021
I was watching CBS Sunday Morning on January 17th and caught Jane Pauley’s interview with then Vice-President Elect Kamala Harris and her husband, Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff. During the interview, Jane stated that the Second Gentleman plans to teach law classes at Georgetown University. After a career as an entertainment litigator, he is now entering the classroom for the first time as an instructor.
I’m getting ready to teach my first class. To help me prepare, I’d love to hear some stories about teachers going above and beyond to connect with their students during this challenging school year. Tell me about the teachers you know.
— Douglas Emhoff (@SecondGentleman) January 26, 2021
What a time to begin teaching! As instructors, we each have our own student population, content to cover as defined by the university course catalog, expected learning outcomes to match general education/department requirements, etc. As I know the Second Gentleman of the United States of America is going to have an incredibly-busy to-do list (beyond just trying to prepare his first course!), these are a few very quick tips I would offer to him, or to any first-time instructor this semester (I assume it is too late for him to consult sources such as NAGT’s Designing Effective and Innovative Courses – but it is a great site to consult every time one teaches!)
Lecture preparation takes time – more than you think. Start with focused learning goals for the day.
Every instructor will share horror stories about how many hours they spent preparing lectures when they first started teaching. I’ve heard several colleagues say it was taking as long as eight hours of scouring through textbooks and modifying materials found online to prepare a one-hour lecture. Some instructors report spending a half-hour to 2-3 hours preparing a lecture on material they are very familiar with. The Yale Teaching Center blog has a post from 2013 that has valuable suggestions – specify the learning goals, cover less content, let students do some of the work, prepare an outline and not a script, etc. But think about what you want the students to walk away with each day (content knowledge? skill development? etc.). The information UC Davis has prepared on Writing Good Learning Outcomes may be of assistance.
Don’t assume what your students know or have access to
Students are coming into our classrooms with varying levels of preparation for college, for learning about and accessing resources on campus, etc. One of the biggest mistakes I learned early on as an instructor was to assume that students know how to use our vast university library resources, how to access our course management system (CMS) on their mobile devices (and I still assume way too much that everything I put in our CMS will function and display properly on a cell phone), etc. In this world of remote instruction, students are doing their remote learning in their cars, parked in a Starbucks parking lot so they can access free wireless. Our students are trying to pay attention to our lectures with dogs barking in the background and interruptions by family members. We should not assume that our students have mastered and/or retained the content knowledge from a previous course, which is tricky for us to balance bringing students up to speed or moving full speed ahead with our own content. How do we know what students know? You can ask them in a pre-course survey (I asked my students for this information when we quickly shifted to remote instruction, see blog post, Are your students prepared for a fully online course? Find out by asking them.). Although our syllabus typically lays out the expectations for a course, a pre-course survey can help ask more specific questions and offer the assistance necessary for students to succeed.
Reach out with frequent, personal communications
Especially during this current semester, students need to hear from their instructors beyond just the 1-3 days you engage with them in Zoom. Send them emails (but not too many to overwhelm them, as our institutions are sending out more emails than ever). Make your communications personal – it humanizes us as instructors. I try to record messages for students, audio and/or video, so they can form a connection with me. Don’t be afraid to share personal information to lighten the mood and tone of the class (although, if you are teaching in Philadelphia, it is not helpful to tell your students you were born and raised a Boston Celtics fan… trust me on this one). In my next class I’m teaching, I am going to request students each schedule a private 10-minute chat with me (this is similar to some faculty that require students to visit during their office hours during a semester). The one-on-one chat with students with hopefully encourage them to reach out and connect with me more, in addition to giving me the opportunity to discuss their progress in the course.
And one other activity I do – at the mid-term, I provide students a survey to complete that lists the overarching course goal and secondary objectives from the syllabus. I ask each student to let me know where they feel they are at on accomplishing the goal/objective, what they feel they need to do to reach that goal/objectives, and what I can do to help. I can then circle back with individual students that may need some specific assistance.
Importantly, Columbia University’s Students as Pedagogical Partners program reports that students “shared with us how much they have appreciated all the efforts of their faculty to be transparent, flexible, communicative, and caring.”
Learn/use student names and how to pronounce them
Your students will feel a much stronger connection to you and the course if you identify them by their name and pronounce their name correctly. As someone that has had her name mispronounced numerous times throughout her life, this matters (see blog post, What it means to students when you can pronounce their names – and when you can’t). You will see student names appear in a Zoom window, but I always like to have students spell out for me how I should pronounce their names by asking them on a pre-course survey. And calling randomly on students, whether in a campus classroom or in Zoom, can cause anxiety for students, especially female students (see Chronicle article, How Calling on Random Students Could Hurt Women).
Make your curriculum current, relevant
Depending on the course and the students enrolled, some students may not be engaged and wondering why they have to take a required course – especially if they have no interest (at least they think they don’t at first). But by helping our students see the connections to what is happening the world and how the material relates to their present/future lives, students transform into active learners instead of passive observers. I really emphasize something I have termed current event literacy in all of my courses, taking the news headlines and bringing the material directly into the topics I’m covering each day. Yes, there are chapters in textbooks that are the historical foundation of a discipline that must be covered, but why not help students see how that material ties in to something happening now in the region of the university, in DC, and/or across the globe?
Everything I have listed above is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to preparing for the classroom. There are other topics to consider, such as the equity in the classroom, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), and so much more. And don’t underestimate how important it is to set the tone and expectations on the first day of class (see blog post, The first day of class – what will you do?).
Ask for help!
Keep posting to Twitter like you did, Mr. Emhoff, to ask for suggestions or teaching tips. There is an incredibly supportive community of educational professionals that are more than willing to share what has worked in their classroom, and what hasn’t. I’ve found faculty generous in sharing teaching materials and links to online resources they have created. You have such a network of connections in the professional community, why not have a few of them Zoom in for a guest panel of speakers, with a Q&A session for students? And I believe you have access to someone with years of community college teaching experience not far from where you work – if you can coordinate schedules, I recommend having coffee with Dr. Biden a few times during your semester. I’ve found the quick coffee breaks and morning breakfast meetings one-on-one with colleagues is an excellent way to unpack what is happening in the classroom and share suggestions for moving forward in the term. You are going to be exhausted (yes, from teaching) – but you’ll also find it one of the most rewarding opportunities in your lifetime (this is coming from someone with 20+ years of teaching experience!).
Best of luck, Mr. Emhoff! And please know that myself and any of the 60,000+ earth and space scientists at the American Geophysical Union are here to help in any way we can! Allow us to serve as your gravity assist that you can pay forward to your students!