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? If your answer to this is simply that you want them to learn the material, then you should probably think about the question some more.

  • How will your lab or section help students with the papers they’ll write or exams they’ll take?
  • If students participate in your shindig, 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 their 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 be especially strict at the beginning of the semester. Remember: it’s easier to change from Dr. Evil to Mary Poppins than vice-versa. Students will be happy should the former occur, but they will never forgive the latter. Nobody likes it when Mary Poppins goes medieval.

Establish a Safe Environment

By “safe” we don’t mean metal detectors and padded walls. 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.

You yourself should remain neutral — your political, religious and other views perennially shrouded in mystery. If you really must spout off, try announcing that you’re playing “devil’s advocate” and deal with any reactions as a moderator, not a crusader.

Introducing Yourself to Your Students and Learning Your Students’ Names

Getting to Know You

Don’t introduce yourself just by name (“We are Falco and this is Music 804”). 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. Don’t babble on too much about your background, though. In the same vein, avoid revealing much in the way of personal details. You want to keep a professional distance between your students and you, and telling them about the nasty breakup with your ex-boyfriend might blur the lines of authority (and make you seem borderline psychopathic).

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. Take care how you handle this, though—it isn’t summer camp, so you don’t need to use lengthy, probing icebreakers. Unfortunately, a little embarrassment is par for the course with just about every such activity, but you don’t want to leave the students with deep emotional scars (superficial emotional scars are probably okay).

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. The benefit of this is that at least one or two students will probably have something amusing or interesting to say (“My name is Karlheinz, I’m a freshman, and I know what the word ‘petrichor’ means”). The downside is that some students won’t be able to think of anything and will end up feeling both embarrassed as well as uninteresting. Avoid pointing and laughing.

Begin Learning Names

Unless you possess freakish memory skills or have a very small class, 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. In addition to writing down their names, write something distinctive about them (“Larry Legassino; has a huge forehead”). 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 Classes*v2 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. In fact, consider going over the syllabus late into the first class lest our nifty little consumers…er, students…pick it up and take off without so much as a fare-thee-well.

A Report From The Field

“I once began an abnormal psychology section with an in-class activity. I played a number of taped recordings; some were selections from contemporary poetry and some were selections from the recorded speech of schizophrenic patients. I then asked the students to see if they could distinguish between the two. Not only was it was a fun little exercise to kick off the semester, but it also introduced them to some of the basic issues of the class.”
— Spooky Milgram, GRAD ’07

Dealing with Shopping Period

The so-called Shopping Period — officially, Course Selection Period — (see Chapter 7) is a great opportunity for students, but it can be a giant headache for you. For discussion sections this tends to be somewhat less a problem, since such sections generally don’t meet until the second week of the semester or later, by which point most students have already decided on their semester schedules. (Rest assured, however, that students may attempt to change sections as the time demands of their social—and sometimes academic— lives mutate.) But if the class you’re teaching begins meeting from the first week of the semester, it’s quite possible that you’ll have students walking in and out of the room throughout your first class, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll all be back the next time.

You can’t do much about this, so relax and try to have a sense of humor. Don’t take it personally when someone leaves after ten minutes; it’s not uncommon for undergraduates to shop three or four courses that meet during the same time slot, and they need to make the rounds in order to make an informed decision about which course to take. For that reason, make sure to have a comprehensive syllabus that lists everything students need to know about the course so that you don’t have to repeat yourself incessantly for the first two weeks. Keep in mind, though, that you are not responsible for bringing up to speed those students who missed the first two weeks of class because they were shopping other courses. It’s up to them to get the notes and other information from fellow students.

If there are many sections in your lab, language or other course and preregistration is not an option, brace yourself for anywhere between zero and thirty students on Day One. Either way can lead to strong reactions (No one loves me! Everyone loves me!). Rest assured that, with a little help from your faculty member, DUS, or course coordinator, section enrollments will even out and stabilize fairly quickly.