Before You Teach

Preparing to Teach

Course Planning

Before you enter the classroom, do some research. The more you know about what to expect, the more confident you will feel. If possible, visit a lecture and section the term before you teach, talk to someone who has taught (or taken) the course before, talk to your course head and head teaching fellow, and read the Q Guide. Review the course syllabus to be sure it is within your range of interests and abilities.

In the process, find out the answers to the following questions:

  • What is the central purpose of the course?
  • Who takes the course? Why? What is the range of their abilities?
  • What are the course requirements, materials, and policies concerning issues such as grading, deadlines, and attendance?

Afterwards, develop a plan for the first day of class. Decide what you’ll need to tell your students and what impression you want to give them of you as a teacher and of the course itself. The more thoroughly you have planned what you hope to accomplish the first day, the more confident you will appear. Even though things may not go as planned, having notes or a plan to fall back on will help you navigate the first day.

It is useful to keep records of your preparation for each section throughout the semester. Being able to refer to previous course plans will allow you to benefit from your previous teaching experience.

The physical environment

Your course head or head teaching fellow will assign your classroom. Visit the room ahead of time and think about the space from the students’ point of view. Will they be able to see you? Will they be able to see and talk to each other? If your room is not optimally laid out, you can move chairs, plan an activity for small groups, or teach from different parts of the room. You are also responsible for the safety of your students, especially those with disabilities. Each building has alarm systems, designated emergency routes, and exterior assembly areas for evacuees. Become familiar with building emergency procedures and convey them to your students. Contact the building manager if you need help with this.


For many teaching fellows, the first day of class can be a daunting prospect. The impression that their students form about them, as well as about the course, may last the entire term. There are many administrative details to cover, but you also want to set the stage for how the section will run for the rest of the semester, and what you and your students should expect from each other. Consider the following suggestions to help you get through the first day and establish a good working relationship with your class.

  • First, introduce and say something about yourself, what you’re studying at Harvard, what you find genuinely interesting about this course, and what your other interests are. Explaining why you find your field exciting will communicate your enthusiasm for the subject you're teaching.
  • Tell your students how, when and where to contact you. Give them your office hours, phone number, and e-mail address. Specify your policy for replying to emails (i.e., same day until 8 p.m.), your policy for outside-office hours meetings (i.e., 24 hour notice) and any hours when you do not want to be contacted.
  • Convey your expectations and the expectations of the course as a whole by addressing some or all of the following:
  • What approach does the course take to the subject?
  • What is the role of the section in relation to the course?
  • What kind of preparation is expected?
  • Is attendance required?
  • In what ways will students be expected to participate? How can they best listen to and speak with each other (and not just you)?
  • Will you be distributing study questions, doing in-class writing, working in small groups, etc.? Will there be individual or group presentations?
  • How much time and effort will the course require?
  • How will their work be graded? What are the policies on written work and deadlines?
  • Learn students’ names and use them as quickly as possible. You can begin by collecting information on a student information sheet. If seeing students’ faces helps you learn their names, look at pictures of your students from the Harvard College Facebook or from your course website.
  • Encourage students to use each other’s names as soon as possible. One way to do this is to have students make name tents by writing their names on both the front and back sides of paper sheets folded horizontally that can sit in front of each student for the first few sessions. You can also urge students to address each other directly by name, and compile and distribute a class list with names and contact information.
  • Start in on the work as soon as possible. Work through a specific problem or piece of material that illustrates what the course asks of students and what it has to offer them. Engaging students in actual work during the first class communicates seriousness of purpose and gives students (especially those who are still shopping around) an idea of what your class will be like.