Finally taking the plunge: Lessons from Teaching

 In careers, PhD/Postdoc Blog, teaching


If you’ve read my other blogs, you know I’m interested in teaching. You also know I was hesitant to commit. I never felt I had enough time or experience to manage a class on my own. No matter the number of classes I TA’d, facilitated, or visited for guest lessons, it didn’t feel like enough to prepare me. This semester, I decided to bite the bullet anyway. If you’re thinking even the smallest bit about teaching, I encourage you to do the same.

I’m now about a month deep into managing my first class. Obviously, I’m by no means an expert, but I’ve learned more in my four, once-a-week lab sessions that I did in all my previous experience combined. I don’t think you can ever be fully prepared, but here are some things to think about so you can go in with your eyes open.

Teaching is all about intentionality.

If you’ve taken any classes on pedagogy (you can find some great ones online), you know that designing the structure of your class is integral to your success. If you’ve taken a particularly good course about teaching, you may also be prompted to think about structuring your interactions with students carefully too. As it turns out, thinking about this is a lot different than actually doing it. Setting up your lab environment, making students’ working groups cohesive (or at the very least have an average level of experience), identifying gaps in knowledge and trying to fill those responsibly: these are all things that take a lot of time and a lot of brain power. When you’re the one responsible for all or most of these factors, it can take more energy to plan the non-curriculum components of a class as it does to make sure you know the material. This leads me to my second point.

Students get out of teaching what you put into it. 

This is a good thing and a bad thing. If you really love to teach, it can be fun to get into the nitty-gritty of planning every detail of every lesson. Even if you don’t love these parts, it’s rewarding to see students grow into better thinkers because of your help. For this same reason, the actual time spent in class is only the tip of the iceberg. It can be easy to lose whole days in refining a syllabus or grading a syllabus. The more effort you put into planning, scoring, and giving feedback the more the students come to respect you as an instructor. Of course, this also means you have less time for other things, so you must be ready to strike a balance.

Teaching requires a delicate mix of excitement, empathy & authority.

 The more energy you bring when you teach something, the more willing and excited the students are to put energy into it. If you are approachable and honest about what you know and aren’t clear on (as long as your clear on most of the basics) students will respect you more and be willing to reach out to you. Generally, this is a good thing, but I’ve learned the hard way that you must set up, early and clearly, that there are boundaries to your accessibility. You must find a way to articulate that you will help them work through a tough problem on a complicated concept, but you won’t look over multiple drafts of a small assignment the weekend before a due date. I’m still working on how to strike this balance and walk-back some of my accessibility without losing my students’ trust.

Work your way up to it.

 Though eventually, you’ll have to bite the bullet of embracing a full classroom, it’s also good to practice—at least a little bit—in situations that are lower commitment. In addition to TA opportunities, there are lots of opportunities for science outreach in classrooms or public events where you can practice managing groups and designing a lesson. These can be even better than TA opportunities because you can interface with lots of different groups and practice adjusting to their personalities. Get comfortable introducing yourself. Get comfortable fielding unexpected questions. Ask for feedback on your performance and go out and do it again. Good luck!






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