First Impressions

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Monday is the beginning of another new semester at the community college . . . and I’m nervous. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been teaching since 2004. It doesn’t matter that I have a stack of glowing evaluations from satisfied students last semester.

What matters is that for some reason I’m not so hot at first impressions.

I swear that I wear professional-looking clothes and shoes, comb my hair, show up on time, smile, all of that. I’m not flunking on those counts. It’s just that somehow I fail to convince students to be excited to show up to my class again for day two. It usually takes until day five, eight, or even ten.

Over a lunch of Cafe Rio pork salads and quesadillas, I talked it over with my sister on Wednesday. Her university courses started this week, and already she had such glowing praise of her professors! “This teacher is amazing and so nice and the books she chose are going to be incredible to read because the way she described them made you want to open them and read them right now, and this other teacher—”

“Um,” I interrupted, half raising my hand like a timid student. “How do I do that? How do I make my students excited about my course?”

She winced a little. “Well, the class is about [such and such technical and highly interesting thing] and the books deal with [fascinating angle of said interesting thing], so . . .”

I finished it for her: “So the trouble is that I teach first-year composition, and who’s excited about that?”

Is that really it? Am I doomed from the get-go because I teach a general education course, whereas my sister is at the end of her major, taking classes custom designed by the professors to be exciting for English nerds? It seems like such a defeatist attitude!

So every semester I go in armed with some new first-day strategy to bolster instant enthusiasm. I give them letters written by previous students, reassuring these newcomers that the course is great and they’ll learn so much. I do activities and show movie clips and try to warm them up to me and to each other as quickly as possible. But still, somehow they won’t be convinced for a few weeks.

Any suggestions? What’s the key to it? What could a gen ed college teacher do or say on the first day to win you over?

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12 responses »

  1. Hi 😀
    I can see that what you are doing is fair enough to get me enthusiastic if I were one of your students. As for me, little things can win me over 😀 keep those movie clips, they are fun!!

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  2. That would be nerve wracking. Just be yourself. I know that sounds trite, but I qlso know you’re awesome and love writing. Let your own enthusiasm for words infect them. And maybe bring food. Shrug. Food, words, movie clips, and your love of language, what could go wrong? Good luck.

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  3. The eternal question, this is, for comp teachers. I think we are doomed to a certain degree—introductory comp classes will always have this challenge and we will never, no matter what we do/change/revise/bring, completely convince most students to be interested in our course. So I think we should be easy on ourselves, recognizing the context in which we are working.

    Of course I don’t think we can give up, just not beat ourselves up (I know about this from personal experience). A constant remaking knowing it will never be perfect, not even close. This semester I’m including more in-class writing, having students read on full length memoir, bailing on the textbook. Another attempt to more fully engage students which will work about as well as my many other past attempts—and that’s ok.

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    • Ron, thanks for stopping by! I hear from students who have had you that they love you, so you must be doing something right. But it’s reassuring to know that other comp teachers have the same insecurities . . . and also that I’m not the only one who’s ditched the textbook! 😀

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  4. Let me start this off by saying… “I swear I am not trying to earn brownie points here.” A few short months ago, in my first semester here at SLCC I sat in your class. My second class ever of my college career. At the end of that class I went home and told my husband what a nut you were, and how I was totally going to love your class. Now look at me, back for round two. With that said, I don’t think you have any reason to be nervous, other than it is probably just in your nature. Besides who can blame you for being nervous, there you stand in front of a bunch of strangers who are looking (staring) at you as if waiting for some grand piece of insightful information. My vote… stay nervous. It really is what makes you fun.

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    • Thanks for your comment! It’s funny, but this is actually the worst time for me — the space between the first day and the second day — because I worry that I’ll have scared everyone away and no one will show up for day two. So your timing is great. Thanks for the reassurance! 😀

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  5. Really, the bottom line is, you expect too much.

    We are adults with complicated lives and schedules and we are just trying to survive getting through school. Mandatory attendance? Reading requirements? Grammar/punctuation perfection? Really? We’re doing good to get to class in between work, homework, other classes, and family obligations. My opinion is that there are students who will do what is expected and students that will do what they feel they can/want to make time for, and taking away points isn’t going to change that.

    My favorite teachers are the ones who are concerned about whether their students are learning and the best way to teach the concept but also work with the student’s schedule, don’t require attendance and are lenient and helpful concerning assignments because that allows me, as a student, to focus on what I’m learning. Instead of constantly focusing on what is due and how meticulous it has to be, I can enjoy the learning process. (I’d rather have paper cuts than do math, and yet, I had a teacher who was so flexible with the students and their needs and so helpful, I found myself thinking, Hmm, maybe math IS interesting.) And remember we, as students, are the ones paying tuition. In a sense, we are paying you. So, if we don’t make it to class – the class we paid for – and we miss out on information, we are the one missing out. We realize that. And yet, I don’t think this argument will sway you one bit because it probably feels uncomfortable and out of control to not have regulations on the students. (I’d feel the same way if I were the teacher.) You likely feel that if you didn’t require reading no one would do it. It’s possible. But I expect my teacher to teach me – better than a book; if I wanted to learn from a book, I wouldn’t be paying for college. You simply need to be the kind of teacher that can teach what can’t be taught through a book; the kind of teacher worth going to class for. Which, in my opinion, you are.

    And so, there are my thoughts on the matter. (And take note, this is coming from a student, who, during 5 years of college classes, attended every class, received all A’s and never missed turning in an assignment, not because it was always required, but because that’s the kind of student I wanted to be.)

    That you require so much from your students does tend to scare them off – for good reason – but if they’d give it a try, they’d learn great and useful things from you. And in case you took all of the above too personally – which you shouldn’t – let me say you were one of my favorite teachers regardless of the fact that I happen to love grammar and punctuation, which, I might add, you made more comprehensible than any other English teacher I’ve had. Ever.

    And be sure to keep the movie clips and cookies. They’re sure winners.

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    • Mindy, I wish every student were like you! In that case you’re absolutely right that the class wouldn’t have to be so strict. I think we’re all guilty of seeing things according to our own experience: when I was a student I did only what was required and was grateful for the requirements because they pushed me to get more out of the class. And it could be that eventually I’ll become as flexible as you describe, since every semester I’m more lenient. Thanks for the insights! 🙂

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