That was fun! A reflection on being back in the classroom

This past fall was my first time teaching in over nine years and I was assigned courses I had never taught before – it felt like I was once again a new faculty member just starting out. In addition, my previous teaching had always been with upper-class students. But last fall I taught two sections of the introduction to engineering course and a first-year seminar—all my students were in their first semester on campus.

As I prepared for the semester, I was concerned about having classes with only first-year students – Would I be able to relate to them? Would it be difficult to engage them in the material? When I taught my first courses nearly 25 years ago, I was much closer in age to my students and my courses were nearly all within my area of specialty. In addition, my former students were taking my courses as part of their major and not in order to fulfil the College’s broader education requirements. But my students this fall were wonderful – they were energetic, interested in the material, and clearly wanted to start off their college experience on a good foot. Having first-year students was also an opportunity for me to (re)learn about the college classroom in partnership with my students.

For me, a big change in the classroom was the technology. In the past I had taught with a computer, projector, and screen (and the other typical accessories of a smart classroom), but the last time I taught, iPhones were not yet available in the stores and only a few classrooms had wireless access. In the past, I would come early and have time to talk with students informally before the class began. Now, before class started, students were almost always on their phones. Starting conversations with my new students before class sometimes felt like an unwelcome intrusion into their personal lives.

But I also had the opportunity to pilot a new technology. The new approach allowed me to prep my classes almost completely on my iPad and to teach my classes directly from the iPad without being tied to the classroom’s computer or podium. I could position myself anywhere in the room and effortlessly shift with my students from looking at documents, to websites, to showing a movie clip, to writing notes—using the screen as my whiteboard without leaving my seat. The new technology also allowed the students to connect their phones and computers to the projection system and they were able to share photos from their projects, drafts of essays, or interesting news items easily with the rest of the class.

One of the benefits of my nine-year break from teaching was that during my time as an administrator, I had a chance to learn about best practices with respect to student learning across many disciplines. I found that I was returning to the classroom more focused on student learning and less concerned about covering large amounts of content. As a result, I found myself thinking constantly about how what I was doing with the students in class and how the work I assigned for out of class aligned with the skills and knowledge that I wanted my students to gain. I also made sure that I created plenty of opportunities for my students to receive formative feedback on their work and for them to be able to revise and resubmit their work. As a result, my students’ work improved noticeably over the course of the semester, their final projects represented their best efforts, and I was able to see in their work clear evidence that they had achieved the learning outcomes I had developed for the course.

Teaching is a wonderful combination of preparing for classes, advising and supporting students, providing feedback, and evaluating work. I’m glad to be back in the classroom – my first semester back was fun, energizing, and very busy!

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