The Night Before a Course Begins

by Zhenya

The bridge between the life before the course and the life during the course... The image is from http://www.gorod.dp.ua/photo/fotoday.php?id=85976

The bridge between the life before the course and the life during the course… The image is by K-Valentin from http://www.gorod.dp.ua/photo/fotoday.php?id=85976

By a ‘course’ here I mean an intensive pre-service training course, or a course for in-service teachers, usually lasting between 2 and 5 weeks, taking place either in my native Ukraine or abroad.

How do I feel on a night before a course begins? Well, to be honest, and giving a very short answer: nervous. To give a bit longer answer, I would simply say that thinking about the participants I have never seen, trying to pre-plan the day, anticipate their learning challenges, find solutions (or rather ‘browse’ through any possible alternatives my experience can provide, etc.) On the one hand, I have already experienced starting so many new courses (more than thirty overall), and so many new terms or academic years (can’t even say how many, and this is not the point now) The point I am trying to make is no matter how (much more?) experienced I become this last night before the course begins does not get easier.

I have been wondering if there is anything I can do to change it. I came back from a course in Korea last week and decided to write down a couple of ideas (to myself, first of all, and also to share and see if anyone else experiences the same kind of ‘beginning syndrome’ and ask for advice or suggestions)

What I have already tried doing on a night like this (and what seems to be helpful):

  • write down a detailed plan of what is going to happen, usually with the exact timing of those steps, even with breaks (well, sounds obvious, but oftentimes I found this helpful during the day, and sometimes when starting a new course in the similar culture/context)

  • play ‘what if’ game: looking through the plan I anticipate any possible challenges (and here it can be anything, literally anything: no paper, not working audio or video equipment, lack of stationery, etc.)

    [Note: My own solution would be ‘materials light’ course beginning, and if I travel to run a course somewhere else I put my materials for day 1 into my carry-on luggage]

  • learn the participants’ names, if the list is available (or at least have it with you): perhaps it is just me, but if ‘learning names’ activity is planned and starts early in the course in a very new place to me I sometimes forget about 70% of the names I hear during that game. I am usually quite happy with my short-term and long-term memory, but this particular moment of a course somehow lets me down!

  • plan an activity or two that are absolutely new to me: might sound weird, but this helps me stay ‘fresh’ and alert when a new day begins, and also broadens my own repertoire of possible Day 1 starters (the most recent example is trying Teaching Timeline activity my friend and colleague suggested the day before the course started; I took a look online and have not found any descriptions of this activity, so perhaps will write about it here one day!)

  • choose the very first activity to be something that does not require any materials at all, or the materials I surely have with me (ideally, an activity I myself really like doing with students or participants)

  • the point above reminded me of this one: talk with my colleagues about the coming course, sharing the plan and asking for more thoughts and ideas (usually happening earlier than the night before, or could be even at night if this colleague is your co-trainer and is feeling in the same way!)

  • plan how to organize the room for training (ideally to see it before the course starts, but that depends on a situation, of course; sometimes I arrive and start immediately): where would a small ‘welcome message’ be hanging? How many groups of participants will be my ‘default’ seating arrangement, and how many times and when do I plan to mix people in the group? How much do I plan to use the board, and ‘what if’ I don’t have one in the room at all?

  • brainstorm how to manage silence or noise, thinking (or wait time) time or interruptions — depending on a culture these can become really important on a course for teachers

I am looking at the list above and asking myself: why are those (obvious) tips so self-centered (trainer-centered?) There is so much about ‘what I can do’ on that first day. So much about me being worried or nervous. One possible explanation at this point is that spending the night before and going through each and every minor detail of that first day with the group will allow me to completely focus on the people when the course actually starts. I found (so many times!) that I am not even looking at those detailed notes during the day, or that I check the break times once or twice to simply find out that they are changed! I think that having a kind of ‘checklist’ or ritual helps me feel confident and perhaps be learner-centered both on the first day of the course and later.

I am also thinking that perhaps re-reading this post might become my new strategy when my next course begins.

What else can be done? What do you do for a smooth and productive start – be it a course or another project?

Thank you for reading! 🙂