Lessons from a First-Time Teacher: Everything I Did Wrong and How You Can Avoid Doing It Too

by Amelia Landenberger, Guest Blogger, UK College of Law

My first year of teaching could have been worse. I had great students, hours of support and patience from my coworkers, and a good deal of luck (no wardrobe malfunctions or inopportune trips and falls). Still, it was a difficult journey, and I’m going to share a few things I learned along the way:

We teach this because we like it; let that enthusiasm show! I couldn’t be a used car salesman, mostly because I have no poker face, and the only thing I know about cars is the color of the paint. But I know legal research the way a car salesman knows cars. More importantly, I love legal research the way ice cream scoopers love ice cream; sometimes you have too much and it gives you a stomachache, but most of the time you can’t resist the urge to give the customer just one more sample until they find a flavor they’ll love.

As a teacher, you must be willing to say “I don’t know,” when appropriate. I knew this when I began teaching, and I found it easy to say “I don’t know” whenever someone asked me about constitutional law. Where I really failed was when a student asked if I knew his name. “Yes, of course,” I lied unconvincingly and then scurried off to refer to my seating chart to look up his name. Afterward, I apologized to the student and admitted I had not known his name and had tried to cover with a white lie. If you find yourself in this situation, remember that it’s far less rude to admit you’ve forgotten than to have the awkwardness of such a visible lie. The student was pleasant about the situation, but I was disappointed in myself for eroding his trust in me, even a little.

You should get ready to laugh off some mistakes during your first year. A few weeks after my first name-forgetting debacle, a student wearing a baseball cap walked up to the reference desk for help with an assignment. The four reference librarians had assigned slightly different versions of the same assignment, so as part of my reference interview I cheerily asked him “and whose research class are you in?” This was followed by one of the most awkward silences of the year before he finally said, “Um, your class.” I apologized, laughed at myself, and didn’t forget his name or face again for the rest of the year (even when he grew a beard over winter break).

In your first year, don’t be afraid to ask for a lot of help. Remember that in your first year, no question is too embarrassing. Don’t stop after asking just one person. Asking two or three experienced teachers gives you a range of options to choose from so that you can find the methods that will work for you. You will probably not do anything exactly the same way your colleagues do it.

You need to embrace the fear and adrenaline you get from the performance of teaching. At least for the first year, that fear doesn’t go away. Try to be natural despite the adrenaline, and you might want to be careful about your caffeine consumption. Students seem to love teachers who are quirky, and trying to hide your personality takes twice as much effort as just letting students see a little bit of what makes you special. However, if your natural state is over-caffeination, you might also want to focus on speaking a little slower in the classroom to allow for note-taking. I once tried to compensate for a rotten head cold and lack of sleep by chugging a venti Frappuccino and my students were amused but mostly overwhelmed by the speed of my lecture that day.

Your students might not be able to tell the difference between your best day of teaching and your worst day of teaching. To them, it’s just class. This is a comforting thought on those days when you feel your teaching was lackluster, but it’s also a reminder that you need to create your own validation. Your student evaluations may be good, but you’re not going to get a standing ovation for your best teaching moments. Celebrate in your own way by bragging to your friends and colleagues.

The first year may be difficult, but you will survive. I hear the second year of teaching is much easier!

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About Jamie Baker

Jamie Baker is the Associate Director of the Law Library at Texas Tech University School of Law. She also teaches Civil Trial Research. She blogs at www.gingerlawlibrarian.com.
This entry was posted in Legal Research Instruction, Teaching (general). Bookmark the permalink.

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