Making a first impression in the classroom

Developing best practice, through eating
Developing best practice, through eating

After a deeply reinvigorating break – with total internet blackout and scarcely a thought of Kim K – I’m back to start my new role as Associate Dean in my Faculty. To soften the blow, I immediately have taken myself away to the UACES annual conference in Leeds to discuss my other research area of euroscepticism.

One of the many things that I will have to do when I return to Surrey is introduce myself to a large array of new people, both in general meetings and more individually. It’s also nearly the start of the academic year, so I’ll also be meeting my new group of students for my negotiation module, so the question of first impressions is rather on my mind.

It’s important to note that this is a rather different issue in the classroom, so I will focus on that aspect for now, while I work on the other stuff myself.

Three main ideas come to mind, each of which has been helpfully demonstrated by colleagues at the conference.

Firstly, own the space. The conference here has a mix of plenaries and panel sessions: the rooms we use therefore range from a lecture theatre to small seminar rooms. In each case, I’ve watched how those presenting and talking have tried to use that space. The more successful ones have got there early, got their materials in order, checked out the equipment they need, said hello to the first arrivals and generally have made themselves comfortable.

In particular, there is real value in creating a sense that you are bringing people into someone into your learning environment, rather than making it seem as if you have all just stumbled into some randomly allocated room (even if that it exactly what has happened). Think of the delegates who arrive late to conference sessions and how they are not quite ‘in’ in the same way as the rest; worse, the presenter who is late.

Secondly, set some ground rules. One of the great joys of UACES is the excellent sense of community that exists. This manifests itself in lively discussion in breaks, but most importantly in the consumption of food and drink at any opportunity. Hence last night, I bundled into a car and got taken to one of the finer curry houses in Bradford, for great debates with colleagues (and minor heart palpitations from the food).

However, looming over this was the question of the bill (the check for American readers): 15 people working out the money would be bad enough, but we were also academics, so sorely lacking in real-world skills.

The solution was actually very simple: before we started ordering, we agreed how we would proceed. That meant an arithmetic division of the final total, no starters and shared sides. When the bill came, it was a big anticlimax and we were out of the door less than five minutes later.

The lesson here is that it is much easier to set ground rules at the beginning than later on. If you can develop these with students, then all the better, since it’ll give them a sense of ownership, but to return to the first idea, if there are things you want to happen (or not happen) then you need to be clear about that from the off.

As to what those ground rules might be, that will depend on your situation, but my advice would be keep the list shorter, rather than longer: no one remembers lists of 15 items, whereas three will stick more effectively. Moreover, a lot of things take care of themselves, and this is my last idea.

Thirdly, have confidence in your abilities. One of the most common things that I see with colleagues starting out in teaching is a worry about whether anyone will take them seriously, as if students are suddenly gifted with the power to search out your soul and find the weakness in your heart.

This is not how it actually is.

Rather than try you to tell you how to become a New, More Confident You ™ (since I think that’s well beyond the scope of my abilities (and if it weren’t, I’d be writing that book instead of teaching)), I will suggest some more rational approaches to conceptualising your situation.

Universities care about their reputations, just as academic associations do. So neither will be allowing people to teach (or present papers) who they don’t think can do it. Certainly, in my institution, you don’t get anywhere near a student until a surprisingly large number of people have signed off on it and there is confidence that you can do the job. Likewise, I’ve talked to young researchers at the conference who delighted to be able to present their work, probably not thinking of the selection process involved in that too.

This doesn’t mean you’re perfect – it means you’re good enough. Any teacher worth their salt is a pedagogic Buddhist, knowing that the path to true enlightenment and perfection is long and difficult. Therefore we have to approach each class as a challenge to be taken, rather than a piece of cake to be had (and eaten).

Moreover, never underestimate the power of social construction. The simple fact of being at the front of a teaching space immediately creates a world of implicit and explicit assumptions and behaviours. People start writing when you speak, they ask questions of you in the belief that you know the answer, you raise your voice to reach the back of the room.

If you can keep these ideas in mind as you head off to the classroom, then you’ll be fine. And if you’re fine, then you can relax a bit and maybe even smile a little: and there’s nothing wrong in reminding people that you’re a person too.

5 thoughts on “Making a first impression in the classroom

  1. Thanks for this. It certainly brought back memories for me – an older, and hopefully experienced lecturer. I well remember my first post and during one session looking out at the sea of faces and consciously thinking (as I continued to lecture) ‘how come they can’t see me as the fraud I am?’ They didn’t and I’ve managed to get away with it for over 20 years now. So for those new lecturers out there remember that apart from the selection process which is so well described here, most of your students know considerably less about your subject than you do. One trick I’ve used when gaps in my knowledge were about to be exposed was to turn any awkward questions over to the class with a casual ‘that’s a very good question, what do the rest of you think?’ It’s never failed me yet.

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