Getting started in the classroom: How to break the ice on the first day of class and set up a great classroom culture

“Well begun is half done,” says the English proverb. The opening day of a course can create a first impression about a teacher and course that can help (or hinder) the rest of the sessions. To what should the new or seasoned instructor pay attention as one kicks off the academic year?

Recently, Darden’s teaching faculty met in a seminar led by Paul Farris and Luann Lynch on “Getting started in the classroom: How to break the ice on the first day of class and set up a great classroom culture.” Together, we focused on what should be on the teacher’s mind (and what shouldn’t) as one prepares for the first day of class.

At the outset, it is useful to be aware of what may concern you. New instructors—particularly those just out of a doctoral program—look toward the opening day, and dwell on:

· Authority: How do you command the respect of the street-wise and self-confident MBA students? You might not be much older than the students in front of you. How do you win the trust of those in the classroom that you have expertise that they should want?

· Preparation: The case studies are complicated and the discussions can follow idiosyncratic paths; how do you prepare to master all of the case facts and anticipate all of the possible directions that the discussion might take? How do you get to know the students?

· Control of the classroom dynamics: How do you intervene when it looks like the discussion is veering off-track? What do you do if you finish too early or run out of time at the end? Should you express a view (affirmation or correction) in response to a student’s contribution? Should you give “takeaways” at the end of class?

Seasoned instructors reflect back on many first days of class and on concerns that might not have been justified. My colleagues reflected on these concerns:

· About me: (“I should have worried more about the students and what they hoped for than about how I looked in front of them.”)

· Preparation: (“I got so over-prepared that I stopped questioning and started lecturing. I did better when I stopped micro-planning a script of questions and started planning in terms of chunks of discussion. One could think about three areas of the field that you’d like students to graze in. And one could envision a board plan that will exist at the end of the discussion and shape a discussion toward that.”)

· They won’t like me: (“Assume positive intent. If the students start coming at you, don’t take it personally; they’re just scared or confused.”)

· Violating some unwritten or unspoken social norms: (“Social norms are really important. Take some time to talk to colleagues. In a case course, one has to support the crucial ones: It’s one conversation (many conversations can’t go on simultaneously). The teacher is a facilitator not a lecturer. Assume positive intent. Researching the case “solution” online or from other students is wrong. Students should help set the norms and enforce them. Trust the case process. And so on.”)

· The technology won’t work (“That might happen. So get to class early and try it out. If there’s a problem, call the tech folks right away.”)

· What happens in my classroom is the most important thing: (“Actually the student experience is considerably richer than just what happens in class: learning teams, clubs, independent study, job search, interactions among students, etc. So keep some perspective.”)

· I’ve got to copy the style of the best teachers here: (“No! Find your own style. Don’t apply a style that is not yours.”)

As the foregoing discussion suggests, a lot about successful teaching is art, not science. The art resides in thoughtfully deploying tools and techniques to motivate, inspire, and correct students so that they teach themselves through cases. One learns to teach well by trial (and with a certain amount of error)—and by listening carefully to students, talking with fellow instructors, and observing strong teachers. One written resource for case teachers that I would recommend is Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership, edited by C. Roland Christensen, David A. Garvin, and Ann Sweet (1991, HBS Press).

One particular chapter in that book is highly relevant to the instructor about to kick off a course: Abby Hansen, “Establishing a Teaching/Learning Contract” is a classic in the field. Hansen makes the important point that how a course plays out depends on the “contract” that an instructor sets with her or his students. The contract consists of two parts: an explicit contract that is summarized in the course syllabus—this is mainly administrative stuff about grading, course content, workload, etc. The implicit contract addresses “values, assumptions, and ideals”—mainly expectations for behavior that practically cannot be written into a syllabus and instead are usually set in the first few class meetings. Hansen wrote, “These powerful intangibles, which color the discussion process and create the emotional climate of a course, play an enormous role in the ultimate value of the discussion process.” Typically, the intangibles are established in the way that the instructor interacts with students. So think about the contract, especially the intangibles, and what you can do to establish a very positive learning climate.

p.s.: For more notes on teaching by the case method, see other recent posts on this blog:

“Getting the Best out of the Quiet Student”

“Teaching with Technical Notes”

“Teaching the ‘Seasoned Learner’”

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