II. Teaching in the College
How prepared must I be before entering the classroom?
Nearly all beginning teachers ask this question at one time or another. If you are seriously underprepared, the consequence is sheer terror, or the contempt of your students. If you are mildly underprepared, the consequence is rigidity because you must remain within the narrow area that you are prepared to address, thereby defeating the flexibility you need to negotiate between what your students know and the goals you have set for them. Conversely, you can in a sense be overprepared when you succumb to the urge to squeeze all the things you've learned into the time constraints of your course. When you try to cover too much material in too great detail, it becomes exceedingly difficult to respond to your students because you become more concerned with covering the material than with whether they have absorbed it or whether they can ever do so.
It is certainly true that "teaching is work." But how do you know how much work is enough? You are prepared enough if you are able to pay more attention to what the class knows than to what you yourself do or do not know. If you are able to improvise and respond to the class's true state while making clear progress toward defined goals, then you are prepared enough. Many beginning teachers, however, underestimate the number of hours of preparation that are required for each hour of presentation. When experienced teachers are asked how much time is required to teach a course for the first time from scratch, estimates in the social sciences and the humanities often are as high as from ten to twenty hours for every hour spent in the classroom. Estimates in the physical sciences and mathematics tend to be considerably lower — by about half — because those hours of preparation will constitute, to a greater extent than is typically true in the humanities and social sciences, a review of previously mastered information and concepts. What is significant in all fields, however, is the number of hidden hours that must be devoted to all kinds of preparatory activities — which leads to another frequently asked question.
What should I do when preparing for class?
What you should do during those hours of preparation depends largely on what you hope to accomplish and, to a lesser extent, on the methods of instruction you plan to employ. To say that you must know what it is that you want to accomplish may sound simple and straightforward, but looks can be deceiving. Recently, in fact, during a CTP forum, a group of beginning teachers who would soon be assuming full responsibility for a course were asked to specify the goals they had in mind for the students they were about to teach. Answers to this seemingly straightforward question were entirely limited to statements such as "help them understand Western civilization," "get them interested in the subject of biology," and "teach them to write an effective argument."
Although objectives such as these can help to get you started, they give little focus to what you or your students will actually be doing in the course. How, for example, will you know whether a student is interested, and what should you do to stimulate that interest? Similarly, how will you judge the effectiveness of their arguments? More importantly, if they are not effective, what will you do?
Even if the first objective you think of is similar to these examples, before completing further preparations for the class, and certainly before entering the classroom, you will generally find it helpful to restate your objectives in more precise terms. One way of doing this is to think about what data you will use to determine whether those objectives have been reached. For example, if you want your students to write an effective argument, you should give some thought to what is involved in effective argumentation, which elements are most critical to that effectiveness, and what kind of skill or concepts are prerequisite to achieving it. It is often helpful to work backwards by first imagining what form an effective argument of the sort you are looking for would take and by then asking yourself what information is necessary along the way.
When you begin clarifying and refining your objectives, you should keep two things in mind. First, a well-considered objective clearly specifies what the student should be able to do as a result of being in your course. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it should provide unambiguous information about what data will be used to determine the degree of their success. Once you have decided on your objectives in these terms, you can then begin thinking about which kinds of classroom activities will best foster them. As the following section suggests, the methods of instruction and the kinds of additional preparation you will need to do are also determined by the goals you have set for your course.