Each year we welcome new faculty to campus. Some are beginning the tenure process, some are visiting (including postdocs, adjuncts and folks on sabbatical) while others are making a mid-career transition. Hopefully when you arrive, orientation helps you understand the culture of the place. The topics tell you what is important to the institution. Hopefully you can start to get a sense of what is expected of you by many different constituencies – the administration, the faculty, your department (and chair), the staff, your students (both in courses and those whose research you supervise) and your advisees.   Orientation also can help you understand what kind of support you can expect from these same people.

So what do you do if your institution does not have support structures in place that you think you might find helpful? Most institutions have someone designated to mentor faculty development.   It could be a vice-provost, dean, associate dean or head of a teaching and learning center. It might make sense to check in with this person and ask what is possible. Would you like a mentor outside your department? Would you like to set up weekly lunches with a group of junior faculty? Would you like to have a writing group that helps keep each other on task and productive?

Here are a couple of suggestions to start the teaching year, especially for those on the job market or tenure-track: (1) set up some peer observations and (2) make plans for formative assessment.

At most institutions, your research productivity will impact your degree of success. But in many institutions your teaching record is just as important (or more so).   Teaching evaluations are funny things. We often administer them at the end of the semester when students are weary and don’t yet know how that final exam went. They can’t know whether what we taught them will stick, or how it might be of value to them in the future.   Therefore it can be helpful to gather other kinds of information about how your teaching is going.

Formative assessment of teaching and learning (which happens during the semester) can be incredibly valuable. Your students can give you feedback while there is some time to make use of it, through homework questions, journals, exit tickets at the end of class or a group conversation. You might want to give a pretest/posttest so that students can see how much they have learned. You can ask students whether they want you to make changes midway through the course that you might be inclined to make anyway. If the students like the idea of a change, you have an opportunity to provide evidence of your responsiveness to feedback. You can also show students distributions of responses (say about pace) so that each student can see if their perspective lies in the middle of the pack or if their response is an outlier. If there is little consensus, seeing the data can build students’ empathy with you about the difficulty of pleasing everyone. Just be sure not to ask for preferences unless you are prepared to make some changes.

Whether or not your institution has a peer observation program in place, it can be very helpful to have other people observe your teaching. You might want to pick someone from inside your department as well as someone from another field to visit your class a couple of times. Junior faculty can set up these visits with each other, but it can also be important for more senior people to observe so that when it is time for people to write letters they have something to discuss.

I don’t know how you feel about it, but despite the fact that I have won teaching awards, I am still regularly mortified when people watch me teach, or I see myself on video. Nevertheless, I learn a tremendous amount every time I am willing to subject myself to this particular form of trauma. It has been particularly helpful to take the observer out to lunch off campus, where we can have a frank discussion. I feel lucky that early on, when I was sitting in on a beloved senior professor’s class, that professor asked me to have lunch and share observations.   It helped me recognize the culture of peer observation in my institution at all stages of our profession.

Here are some suggestions to make observations work for you.   First, think ahead of time about what you might want to focus on as you teach. If you give the visitor specific things to look for, it can help focus their attention on matters that you really care about. It also gives you a little control (and the ability to prepare). For example, maybe you want them to note how much your students interact with you and with each other, and who is doing the talking. If you call on people, are you doing it in a gender-balanced way? Who “holds the pen” and who dominates conversation during group work at the board?

Setting up your plans for formative assessment and peer observation early in the semester/quarter is a good idea, because the time will fly.

Finally, if you are new (and maybe if you are not), cut yourself some slack. You are getting used to your job and the many levels of expectations. When students know you are new, they might challenge you a bit. And in a small school you might be seen as “not the professor I expected.”   Building rapport with your students, making your expectations clear, showing your responsiveness to reasonable student requests, and sharing your excitement and energy will go a long way to carry you over the “new faculty” hump.

What support structures at your institution helped you when you were new? What support do you wish you had that might not yet be in place? Peer observation can be challenging if your observer is not supportive. What insights or challenges have arisen from peer observation? Have you experimented with formative assessment? Anyone up for giving these ideas a try?

One thought on “Beginnings

  1. My first year teaching I was having a particularly difficult time with a class of seniors, some of whom were in their fifth/sixth years (??) at my institution and we’re tired of school and I was different than their typical professors. The department head offered to observe my teaching. He gave me some basic advice about building rapport with students (coming to class earlier; chatting with students). While that particular class still remained difficult, I have definitely used his advice successfully in my other classes and I think it has helped my student evaluations.

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