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Blog » Faculty Stories: Neil Hair and Teaching Your First Class

Neil Hair—Nothing is more terrifying than going into your first class session with a new group of students. After 19 years in the classroom and several teaching accolades, I think it’s fair to say that even as a veteran I still get butterflies. Here are a few tricks that have worked well for me in the context of what I teach, which is mostly marketing strategy.

Prep Work

First, the philosophical stuff—I pre-game all of my classes in the sense that I think about what I want to achieve, how I want to be perceived, and what experience I want to impart to students. I think about how I will establish credibility (experience in the field, married with experience teaching successfully) and how best to create honest and open relationships with and among my students. Ask yourself a series of questions as you plan your course. How do you see students? Do you see them as customers, as collaborators, or my own preference, as apprentices learning a skill? What is more important, that students like you or that they learn from you? What is your teaching philosophy and how does that translate to the classroom? Perhaps an even more strikingly obvious question to ask yourself up front is, why are you doing this? You can then create classroom experiences for your students with the answers to these questions in mind.

Next, anticipate as much going into the class as you can. Look at your class list and learn students’ names. Talk to your student advisors and identify any issues so you can better prepare for them. I also introduce myself to students in a pre-class email to help take the edge off the first encounter. Preparing mentally also helps. Make sure that you get a good night’s sleep and have your materials prepared a week in advance—printed copies of the syllabus, lecture notes, and business cards. Think like a student, anticipate their questions, and remind yourself of the value you’re adding to their learning experience.

The First Class Session

I set expectations of promptness by arriving on time. Right on time. Whilst thrashing the butterflies to the side, I greet the class with friendly confidence, introducing myself to each student—shaking their hand, greeting them by name, making eye contact, distributing my business card, and reminding myself to BREATHE regularly (I find the last one helps especially). I hand out the syllabus (essentially, my contract with the class) and then my notes. With a quick personal introduction I set a number of key expectations; cell phones are to be turned off and laptop screens are to be closed—there will be time to use both later, I remind them. We review the syllabus, objectives, learning outcomes, purpose, and structure of key deliverables and their due dates. I set the expectation that the course will be rewarding but challenging. Yes, I always lose a few students at the first break, and that’s just fine too—the rigor of my courses isn’t for everyone.

Secret Weapons

Over the years I’ve developed a few tried and true strategies to create the kind of dynamic classroom environment I want. I start with a few simple questions: “Who are you, why are you here, what are you looking for from the course, and tell me one interesting fact about you.” This of course is an introvert’s nightmare. (My own personal nightmare incidentally sees me arriving late to a class with no prior preparation or materials!) I also emphasize the importance of academic honesty.

Next, I ask students to break out into teams of two and identify and discuss likes and dislikes of prior learning experiences. Doing this has proved critical in helping me understand the learning experiences that they have had, so that we avoid many, if not all, of these problems. The discussions about prior learning experiences create an open and honest environment in which we can discuss student AND instructor frustrations. Another good strategy is to review the content of the entire course in 60 minutes—a straight lecture with a Q&A session thereafter. In this summary I always demonstrate the personal application of the materials we will be covering.

Other secret weapons? I have a lucky pen, and I always bring it to class. The first page of my syllabus is always printed in color and I always include a color-printed one-page cheat sheet of the week’s materials. I share a couple of jokes, being the mischievous Brit that I am, and I actively encourage students to use my first name “within these four walls.”

First Day in an Online Course

Teaching online for me is one of the most rewarding aspects of my career, but it takes work to finesse and polish an exceptional learning experience. Understanding and using the technological tools is critical, as is effectively structuring the learning environment. All of the strategies I use in the physical classroom apply equally to the first live online interactive session; it’s just that the handshakes are virtual. I use the same approach, ask the same questions, and settle the same nerves (both my own, and my students).

Avoid These Blunders

It’s important to remember that students, for the most part, want you to succeed as an instructor, but they’ll also happily talk to you about poor classroom experiences if you ask them. Be mindful that students are well versed in how much they are paying per hour for their learning experience. Treat the first class accordingly.

  • Don’t simply read the syllabus and then let students go early.
  • Don’t spend the first hour reviewing your resume. They know you’re likely to be clever.
  • Don’t turn up late and don’t rush yourself. Remember—breathing helps here.
  • Avoid being overly confident, AKA cocky, lest you end up on the business end of a YikYak thread or a ratemyprofessor.com posting.

The Lowdown

Preparing and delivering the first class session is, without doubt, mildly terrifying. Counter this anxiety by preparing fully, thinking about the experience you want to impart, and thinking about what it would be like to be a student in your course. Establish credibility quickly, but don’t forget to show that you’re human too. Shake hands and make connections on the first day. Have your materials ready to go, explain the relevance of the materials to your students, and demonstrate you have an interest in students’ learning. Don’t be afraid to have a little fun. Above all, show enthusiasm—it trumps absolutely everything else.

Neil Hair is the executive director of the Innovative Learning Institute at RIT. He is an associate professor of marketing at the Saunders College of Business and recipient of five of RIT’s teaching awards for excellence, including the Provost’s Award for Excellence in Teaching (2006), the Exemplary Online Faculty Award (2008), RIT’s Executive MBA Faculty Recognition Award (2013), Saunders College of Business Alumni Award (2014), and RIT’s highest teaching honor, the Eisenhart Award for Outstanding Teaching (2012). His teaching interests include developing the world’s first program on the commercialization of virtual worlds, and the pedagogy of immersive online student learning experiences. In his role as executive director of the ILI, Neil has been tasked with leading RIT’s charge toward innovative teaching practices across the board, promoting faculty awareness of successful innovations, and executing RIT’s online portfolio of learning products.

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