Magazine Reflections

If You Could Build a Time Machine . . .

What advice would you give yourself as a first-year instructor?

Summer 2023

I would tell myself to focus on two things and only two things. First, get to know your students. Second, do whatever you can to help students meet their learning objectives. It’s easy to get distracted by our own worries and ambitions, but if we put the students at the center of what we’re trying to do, we’ll never go wrong.
—Winnie Needham, Principia College

Be aware of the energy it takes to teach and to grade, and give yourself twice as much time as you think you need. Going into teaching, I did not understand that it takes at least four hours to prepare a two-hour class and then another hour to decompress and reflect. I didn’t grasp that useful comments are the most important part of feedback, not the letter grade.
—Kyle J. A. Small, Anderson University

Following my fifty-plus-year career, I would advise myself as a new teacher to only say things that you can back up with facts and well-reasoned arguments. We must insist that the university remain a place that never allows a regime of sophistry and propaganda to determine the nature of truth. Instead, we must uphold the standard set by Socrates that “an unexamined life is not worth living.”
—Steven M. DeLue, Miami University

After almost seventeen years of teaching, I would send my first-year self this note: I know you are excited but nervous to stand before these impressionable and eager faces, but have no fear—you can put them at ease by just being yourself. You have nothing to prove with inflexible due dates and attendance policies; those are barriers to student success and your sanity. The students need to see that you were once in their seats and that you can empathize with what they are going through. Please care for them, because they need you as much as you need them.
—Star Taylor, Riverside City College

My advice to myself as a neophyte teacher would be to think less about teaching and more about learning. The key is to see your students as cocreators in the understanding of your field of knowledge.
—Danny Rukavina, The American Business School of Paris

Do not assume that what is obvious to you will also be obvious to your students. Explain the overall course design, the gestalt of your activities and assessments, and the connection between readings and units. Tell your students that they will benefit by examining these connections as they progress through the course.
—Douglas N. Johnson, Colgate University

When I began teaching, I emphasized content over process and both of those over students. That approach exaggerated my role in the instructional process and may have inadvertently stymied student learning. I would advise my younger and less-experienced self to remember Theodore Roosevelt’s wise saying “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”
—Bradley J. Cardinal,Oregon State University

I would remind myself that when I became a nurse, I did not become an expert overnight. It took time, patience, and perseverance. First-year teachers need those same attributes. I would tell myself to combine skills with passion, commitment, love for the job, and a dogged determination to hang in there. When my students come back and report that they have a good job as a registered nurse and were able to achieve their life goals, it is all worth it!
—Cyra Kussman, Elon University

Illustration by Daniel Downey