Beginning the Course: The First Day

Even experienced teachers sometimes approach the first day of class with uneasiness because every course is a new experience and no two classes are ever alike. Do not be overly concerned about your own fears, but do be prepared. As indicated throughout this handbook, careful preparation is the key to successful teaching.

Preparation may be more important than ever for the first day of class since the initial session generally sets the tone for the rest of the course. If the teacher appears to be in charge, purposeful, and enthusiastic, the students will be more confident that the course will be a worthwhile investment of their time. The agenda for the first day usually consists of three activities: taking care of administrative details (e.g. calling roll, handing out syllabi), meeting the students, and introducing the subject. The following information is intended to help the new GTA have some idea what to expect with regard to each activity. In addition, there are also a few very important, last-minute precautions you should take:

  1. Be sure the classroom is unlocked, properly lighted, and clean.
  2. Be sure you have plenty of chalk or board markers, an eraser, and a clean board.
  3. If you are using technology, be sure to get any keys necessary to unlock classroom cabinets. Test the equipment beforehand, and arrive early to have computers and projectors ready for the start of class.
  4. Be sure that you have the preliminary class roll, copies of the syllabus, and any notes you will need.
  5. Be on time. Start on time. If possible, arrive early to prepare for the class and to meet students. If you are prepared and ready to go when class time arrives, you will be off to a good start.

Administrative Details

Many students may still be “shopping around” for a course on the first day of class, so several may show up who have not registered for the course. By contrast, some students who have preregistered may have changed their minds and will drop the course. Still others may become discouraged by their first day experience in another course and wonder whether or not they are supposed to be in your class in the first place. Regardless, you may expect to have your share of administrative details to handle during the first few days of the semester. Information on University policies and procedures for dropping or adding courses, auditing or challenging a course, and other administrative matters is included in the current editions of the The University of Georgia’s Student Handbook and the Bulletin for undergraduate study. You may now also read about the drop/add and withdrawal process online from the following website:

Meeting the Students

You may find preliminary class rolls in your office mailbox before the first day of class, but if you don’t, print a current one from the registrar’s website. Current enrollments are available at the website throughout the semester. If you choose to call roll for the first class meeting, keep in mind that not all students in the class will be on the initial list. Advise students who are not on the preliminary list to register or go through the drop/add process on OASIS. These administrative details can take up valuable class time, so it might be helpful to speak with students not on the class roll at the end of the course period.

Finally you will get to meet the class, and your students will probably be equally eager to see what you are like. Unless there is good justification for a delay (such as a change in the scheduled meeting place), it is advisable to start the first class on time. You will set a precedent for punctuality from the beginning, and you will establish a tone that will help students realize the importance you attach both to the course and to their time.

Experienced teachers use many different ways to broach the awkwardness of the first few moments of student-teacher interaction, and probably the most common is to hand out the syllabus. This gives that teacher a meaningful first action to perform, places useful information into the students’ hands, and gives both teacher and students a common ground for initial communication. Once you have distributed your syllabus, you may introduce yourself and write your name and the course on the chalkboard (this will help students who have wandered into the wrong classroom). Next, list your office location, office hours, and mode of preferred communication (email address or telephone number) on the board, or post the information on a Power Point slide. Although this information will also be listed in your syllabus, announcing it on the first day of class will give you another chance to make your students aware of your interest and accessibility to them during the course.

Some professors opt for a strong opener for the first class. If you would like to open the class big, here are some questions to keep in mind:
You may also want to tell your students something about yourself on the first day of class. What do you research? How did you first get interested in your field?

There are several different ways to get the class to introduce themselves. If the class is small, you might want to have the class members introduce themselves. Otherwise, divide the class into pairs and give each half five minutes to interview the other (be sure to indicate to the pairs when the time is half-over). The pairs introduce one another to the entire group. The advantage to this method is that no one is put on the spot to talk about themselves. Alternatively, you could have each student volunteer to swap email addresses or phone numbers with another student, which serves as a buddy system should anyone have to miss class, and also minimizes the number of emails you’ll receive about course administrative details.

Learn your students’ names as soon as possible, even in a large class; students will invest more in a class when the professor knows them. If the class is small enough, consider taking digital photos to review later. Perhaps you can have each student to your office or the cafe at the SLC for a five-minute chat. If the class is large, you might want to consider a seating chart, at least for the first few weeks. This will aid you in taking attendance, and will help you to remember names more quickly. In seminar-style seating classrooms, some instructors create name placards for each student, enabling students to get to know each other as well. Other professors will hand out index cards and ask students to write down their names, email addresses, and why they are interested in taking the class. What courses have they previously taken in the field? What is their major? What has been their favorite course at the University of Georgia and why? This will give you a better understanding of what your students have come to expect and what they appreciate.

Introducing the Subject

Finally, some instructors hesitate to introduce content on the first day, but why punish those who know that they want to take your class by waiting until the end of drop/add to begin your lectures and discussions? Remember, your first class sets the tone for the rest of the semester. By presenting new material from the first day, this suggests to students that you are serious about making their time with you worthwhile and that you expect progress to be made in every session together. Don’t worry about the students who are still in the “shopping” for classes stage. They will have a better sense of how your class will be run if they witness how you teach. Many first-time teachers, as well as many experienced teachers who take on a new course often find that they have prepared too much material for the first day, but it is always preferable to have too much rather than too little to do. Some start with the most important points to cover, and as time permits, will go into the details of those points. Others will delve into details only after they have allowed for student questions. In general, remember this: you know more than you think, and your excitement about your field will carry you far in your students’ lives. Your students want to cooperate, and they want to learn.

Seven Ways to Handle Nervousness

(Reprinted with permission of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Stanford University)

Practice doesn’t make perfect, but doing a presentation out loud several times before the real thing will make you feel more confident, especially if you practice under conditions as close to the actual situation as possible. Do at least one dry run in front of an audience, even if the audience is just a friend.

Concentrate on the ideas.
Concentrate on the ideas you want to get across, not on your own nervousness. Even shy people speak up when it’s something they care about. Think about your audience’s needs, not your own.

Make a strong start.
You’ll be nervous at the beginning of the talk, so start with an introduction that will be easy to remember and that will relax you as well as the audience.

Rehearse for your first presentation by acutally visualizing how it will go. Imagine what you’d like to say, how you’d like to say it, and a positive response from the audience. Many athletes use a similar approach by imagining an entire dive or jump, in detail, before they actually do it.

Use audiovisual aids or multimedia.
Particularly if you have lots of technical information to cover, it can be reassuring to have much of it already written on transparencies or PowerPoint slides. Even just an outline on the board can reassure you that you won’t forget what you want to say. Be sure to look at your audience as much as possible, however, and not at your outline or slides.

Assume a confident attitude.
To a large extent, you can control your own reaction to sweaty palms or a beating heart. Tell yourself you’re “psyched,” not nervous. Remember that to an audience, nervousness can seem like dynamism or energy. Your attitude will probably determine what the audience thinks.

Right before the presentation, take a few moments to regulate and deepen your breathing. When it comes to public speaking, your breath is your main support. The moment you start to feel a case of nerves building up, take a deep breath. You will start to feel better immediately and your voice will convey your relaxation and confidence.