Starting The Academic Year Off On The Right Foot

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Every new academic year, there are simple things you can do to make your teaching and administrative load easier to bear. What steps can you take to prepare before the first class session, or within those crucial first months?

Prepare teaching materials in advance.

There are few things worse than that sinking feeling when you realise, five minutes before you’re due in the classroom, that you still haven't made 70 copies of a crucial four-page handout.

An easy system awaits you right next to the staff copier: grab an empty paper box and turn it into a module handout file. Print out and staple the lot, session at a time. Then, using recycled sheets of coloured paper to divide it up session by session, file all of the handouts you need for the rest of the term. Add a blank sign-in sheet for each week. Now it’s easy to grab it and go.

The same tactic works for PowerPoint slides. Upload any that you have already completed to a virtual learning environment like WebCT or to a folder on the university server, and put them in folders named for each separate class session. You can use the tools in your VLE to either make all slides available to students from the start of term or to selectively release them when it’s time. What’s important is that they are now at your fingertips at the start of class (but be sure to back it all up on a USB stick too, in case of network failure).

If you don't have some materials completed, schedule time to get them done as quickly as possible. 

Book yourself in for training.

What administrative activity gave you the greatest problems in the preceding year? Will you have a new responsibility this year, such as supervising postgrads or managing research staff? Identify one or more key areas of concern and find out whether your university offers training that prepare you to meet the challenge.

If there’s no training programme running, you may be able to set up a mentoring arrangement with a colleague who can show you the ropes. Alternatively, it is sometimes possible to get bespoke training through your university’s Staff Development department.

Set up smart systems.

If what your university asks you to do to track student attendance, achievement and progression works, keep doing it. But if you find the tools on offer are inadequate or don't help you see the bigger picture, create your own systems and put time for updating them into your schedule to make sure you use them.

You don't need to be a computer programmer (or waste reams of paper)—the Table function in Microsoft Word or a very simple database can be used to, for example, make a list of all students on your modules and their contact details, and make periodic checks on their attendance, marks, and any progression or support issues. This can be extended to programme level to include whether they are enrolled on the right modules, on track with final projects, or in need of any additional help. 

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