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Prep Squad: How Faculty Gets Ready for the New School Year

Think only students fret at the start of a new school year? Think again.

By the time September rolls around, HGSE faculty members have already spent months preparing their courses.

"Students show up on the first day not expected to do anything, but faculty are expected to have an entire course planned out," says Professor Judith Singer, senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity at Harvard University. "An enormous amount of the work of teaching takes place before you set foot in class."

In fact, before the previous year's class has even graduated, faculty members are busy planning and meeting deadlines for fall courses. After months of prep, it is only natural that many faculty members get a case of first day jitters.

"Of course I get nervous before the school year and excited as well for any class, but especially for those first few class sessions," says Professor Monica Higgins. "I am a big believer in the importance of beginnings, so I try and pay close attention to my first interactions with students, especially in the classroom."

Prepping for the upcoming school year takes a lot of forethought. Typically, there is no prescribed curriculum for undergraduate or graduate teaching. Considering that the average course at HGSE meets 25 times in four months with the same group of students -- that is a lot of time to fill, and fill wisely and well.

Often, for faculty, the summer isn't the break one might think. Administrative deadlines at the school require faculty to order course textbooks as early as May. Additionally, course packs must be complete by early July, and course websites started on in early August. In the meantime, faculty members must keep with other professional obligations. They are charged with not only teaching, but also advising students, sitting on committees, teaching Programs in Professional Education courses, and conducting their own research. The latter can be the toughest to negotiate for faculty members, and typically, summers are often the only time a professor has to dedicate to such work.

Assistant Professor Natasha Warikoo, who teaches Cultural Explanations for Ethnic and Racial Inequality in Education and Action Research this fall, uses the summer to focus on making her courses better. "I'm identifying and meeting with teaching fellows, finalizing the syllabi, rethinking assignments and readings, and jockeying for the classrooms I prefer," she says, noting that she also considers how to pitch the class to students.

Once class is underway, faculty members shift from getting their classes in order to getting ready to take the stage. In many ways, says Singer, teaching is like being a performer: regardless of whether a professor is having a good or bad day, once they are in front of the class, personal moods become irrelevant and preparation -- not just for the overall course, but each individual class session -- comes into play.

Before each class, Higgins, who teaches Leadership, Entrepreneurship, and Learning this fall, says she reviews the session and prepares a teaching plan - even if she has taught it many times over. Higgins uses case-based teaching, in which students prepare for class by reading about a real-life situations. The class features an intensive conversation guided by the faculty member. To prepare, Higgins spends time going over timing and discussions, as well as the needs of students. Beyond that, Higgins says that she also reviews the seating plan to understand who hasn't been speaking up in class. "I can keep an eye out for specific students and think of ways or times that I might invite them into the discussion," she says.

Even with all of the preparation, those among the faculty know that their syllabi and lesson plans can change after a course begins, especially as students raise different issues and provide feedback. Faculty can learn a lot from their students, which is why, Warikoo says, the class preparation is ongoing.

"As the semester goes along I keep a marked-up syllabus on which I take notes after every class about what went well and what didn't, what readings were effective and spoke to students and which didn't, what I might do differently next time around," she says.

And, the semester goes by just as fast for faculty as it does students, and they must begin to prep for their spring courses. "Before you know it - it's Thanksgiving and the course is ending," Singer says, "and you didn't have time to do all that you wanted to do."