Reflections of an Adjunct Professor

This past semester I had the opportunity to teach the Advanced Java course at GRCC. Teaching at the college level has been something I’ve wanted to experience for a while and it is also quite aligned with my values. While I was excited to start the semester, I was a bit nervous at how my first class would turn out. As the semester progressed, I kept a list of failures and successes that would help me grow as a teacher. I hope this list helps other instructors as they start their career.

Using Different Tools

One decision I made early on was that I would never use PowerPoint. I think the static nature of PowerPoint slides completely disengage students and detract from the learning experience. I was lucky to be introduced to Prezi months prior from a friend, and at the time I knew it would be a great alternative to boring slides.

For instructors that haven’t created a screencast before, I strongly recommend investigating them. I used SnapXPro and Vimeo, but there are many other alternates out there.

Google Docs was a great aid in creating Labs and Surveys. Legos were excellent in illustrating concurrency, especially regarding context-switching. Omnigraffle and Apple Screen Shots were also a big boon when creating my lectures.

Time Spent Preparing for Classes

I was repeatedly warned by seasoned instructors that the first class is the hardest. But I was completely taken back at how much time I would spend preparing for lectures. The course I taught didn’t have a prior curriculum, and it went against my nature just to teach directly from a textbook. Yet I spent around 5-6 hours a week just putting together the lecture and the accompanying lab.

A lot of time was spent on planning the goals of the lectures, preparing them on Prezi, creating the labs, and grading the previous week’s labs. I worked hard to craft labs that didn’t just evaluate whether the student understood the concept, but supplemented the learning experience from the lecture.

I approximate I’ve spent on average 12 hours a week to prepare for a one night-a-week course.

Going Over Prepared Material

I found early on that not going over the material you’ve prepared can really bite you. It helped tremendously to write the solution code to the labs before I gave them the assignments. There was always something I needed to tweak in terms of problem descriptions. Even though I consider myself a good developer, if I just put together an assignment without fleshing out a solution myself, the resulting code would become tedious and lose the original intent.

One requirement as innocuous as ‘Format a collection of strings so the output results in: “string1, string2, string3 and string4.”’ had students spending the majority of their time in the wrong area which in turn clouded the lesson.

Oddly enough, that requirement worked well when teaching Unit Testing.

Office Hours

I think I was one of the few adjuncts who offered office hours. Working at Elevator Up I took advantage of our great space at The Factory and posted weekly office hours. Despite the Holland-to-GR commute, office hours were an excellent opportunity to have a regular checkpoint for myself to focus on the class. Every Thursday evening from 5 - 7 I knew I would be working on my class.

Some instructors mention that students don’t take advantage of their office hours. I had students show up about 50% of the time. I do think that scheduling can be important though. I had a few students mention that they had another class or had to work during those hours, and for those I was very clear that I would make myself available for scheduling issues.

People Fall Asleep

I know students fall asleep in class. I even remember times when I did it. But boy is it a shock to be mid-sentence and spot one student nodding off and see another drooling. I think it took all of my willpower to stay focused on the lecture.

To other new teachers, don’t take it as an insult. Evening classes in warm rooms can bring down even the most alert. And mentally prepare yourself, because I was completely taken aback.

I love Kinkos

Most college offices have great equipment for making copies of exams and syllabuses, but I sure love Kinkos. For $10, they would take a PDF from a USB thumbdrive, print and staple many copies in less than 15 minutes. I know it sounds spoiled, but $10 for saving that time was well worth it to me.

Due Dates

I might have been described as a strict teacher in the way I accepted assignments. I had a simple rule:

  • Full Credit was only awarded if the assignment was turned in before the next lecture started
  • I would accept the assignment late 1 day for Half Credit
  • I would not accept an assignment after 1 day late.

This does come across harsh, but I believe this stance carries it’s own benefits.

  • It helps teach the importance of time management.
  • I wasn’t bombarded by a slew of 3-week late assignments at the end of the semester.

Additionally, I held myself to the same standard. If I would require my students turn in assignments on time, I would hand them back on time.

That being said, I do recommend keeping a pulse on the class. There was one instance where I was flexible and extended the deadline of a project 1 week, but I awarded extra credit for the students who turned in their work by the original deadline.

Pacing Concepts

Another lesson I learned early on was pacing. My early lectures made some pretty large leaps, and while they seemed fairly logical to me it dawned on me that I needed to slow down.

That doesn’t mean my students were slow, or that I went to the extreme to ‘dumb down’ my lectures. However there is a sweet spot between being painstakingly redundant and breezing through concepts. This is still an area that I need to work on.

Connecting with Students

After realizing that I needed to work on pacing, I stumbled upon one of the biggest take-aways for me as an instructor: Connecting with Strangers. I am leading a group of strangers that I not only want to convey new material to, but I want to connect on a level that draws at that ‘Aha!’ moment for each one of them. That is hard enough with an individual, let alone a classroom.

This was a very humbling experience for me and I think one area in which I learned the most from my students. Good teachers connect with their students, they don’t just lecture.

Final Thoughts

I had such a great experience teaching my first semester. I’d like to thank my wife for bearing with me these past four months. Especially, so soon after our newborn. I’d also like to thank my company Elevator Up for encouraging me to explore this avenue.

I’ve been asked if I will teach another class. If the opportunity presents itself, I may, but I now have more respect for the amount of effort teaching requires. Regardless, I did have fun and I learned more about myself and about communicating with others.

I welcome feedback from other teachers and how their early experiences went.