What I've Learned From Teaching

In a reply to me, a gawker commentator implied that I was a terrible teacher. I've gotten this sorta comment before too, and hmm. I'm not the greatest teacher, absolutely, but terrible? Here's the thing, most people don't actually understand what makes a good or bad or indifferent teacher. I didn't either when I first started down this road.

My personal statement was all about how I wanted to teach the class I'm currently teaching and I was so sure that I could rock it out and do a better job than most of the people teaching it. My adviser says I do, but that's mostly 'cause the professors teaching it just aren't very good. But ya know, I can't even blame them 'cause the institutional motivation to be good at teaching is practically nonexistent. I'm at a very large public very high research activity university. This means that it's all about publishing and research and I've been getting yelled at like whoa for spending far too much time on my teaching (and I'm still way behind on grading). So let's talk a little about teaching:

Tutoring isn't the same

One on one is a totally different ball field from a whole classroom. As a tutor, I could've easily read a student and flipped my technique when stuff wasn't coming across. I could also assign work and give feedback during the session. That level of responsiveness is flat out impossible in a classroom, 'specially when I have a syllabus I gotta get through and 60 students who are all over the spectrum in terms of skill and being responsible about doing their work.

Being organized is important

I know, I know, all those movies show these fantastic inspiring orators motivating students with amazing speeches, and then the real world (or my advisor) says nope, give students all the dates for things in advanced and they'll be happy. Give 'em a practice midterm/final or make the homework really similar and you're solid. Get grades back in a timely manner (and I'm terrible at this) and you're golden.

Strangely enough, this is even true for the students who've never looked at the syllabus or schedule and are only vaguely aware of material being up on blackboard. Here's the thing though-if it's all up on blackboard/a website/etc., students tend to be slightly more willing to admit that the professor provided these resources and it's their own fault for not taking advantage of them. They also tend to be more okay with terrible grades if they've seen that terrible grade progression all along the way.

Students are awesome and frustrating

Cynical me says it's almost a sign of good teaching to sometimes hate students, 'cause not being frustrated is a sign you've become too apathetic. So I love my students, at least the ones who'd like to actually understand the material and care about it. I'm not quite as fond of the students who just want to learn which buttons to push to get their A or C. Even if you're one of these students, for the love of FSM don't let your instructor know. (Yes, my students tell me this...)

So then the critique I get is that I'm not trying hard enough to motivate them. Well, there are multiple motivation styles that sometimes clash and man I try my hardest, but good motivating examples are non-trivial. Too real world is often too complex, good conceptual is often too toy, and finding the right balance is the stuff of experience.

And at the end of the day, learning isn't a spectator sport, right? And yet very many of my students think they can learn by osmosis. I've got students who still can't do a task that was assigned the first week of the semester, despite weekly labs with attentive TAs, lots of resources on blackboard on how to do the task, even more resources online, and respectable office hours (and offers of being around if I'm asked to show up).

Like, the most frustrating thing as a teacher is trying to figure out the boundary between I'm not trying hard enough and they're not trying hard enough. I try to console myself with "I can't put more work into a student's grade than the student does", but there's still some residual guilt from students doing poorly. Even when I don't have the slightest clue who the student is because said student hasn't bothered to reach out to me in anyway. Ugh, 'tis frustrating dealing with people.

Most evals are sorta useless

Research shows that student evaluations often are more positive in courses that are smaller rather than larger, and elective rather than required. Also, evaluations are usually more positive in courses in which students tend to do well.

See how none of the above has to do with actual teaching? Well that's why they're often taken with a cup of salt.

So I do have to qualify that there's a huge confounding variable here that I'm not sure if they took into account. Large required courses are often the ones taught by graduate students (so inexperienced and juggling their own coursework on top of research) or faculty that can't get enough students to register for their upper level electives, so maybe the teaching quality really isn't as awesome in these courses anyway.

Except that there was another study where students were randomly assigned to experienced and newbie profs for required courses and their evals were still kinda shortsighted:

When you measure performance in the courses the professors taught (i.e., how intro students did in intro), the less experienced and less qualified professors produced the best performance. They also got the highest student evaluation scores. But more experienced and qualified professors' students did best in follow-on courses (i.e., their intro students did best in advanced classes)

So yeah, on average, evals don't matter. Hell, I've only seen mine once in 4 years of teaching and they sorta affect me as an adjunct-in an, if they were consistently 0 the department would maybe shuffle me into only teaching recitations sorta way. And before people complain, remember that departments are just trying to take care of their non-research funded grad students somehow.

But here's the other problem: lets say that evals were a %100 accurate and totally on point-well, they still often wouldn't be that helpful because they're usually not constructive (I need to know WHY I suck) or the suggestions are things that really aren't good teaching methodology. This is why evals from other teachers are far far more useful. My adviser watching my class and going you can improve A by doing B and C by doing D, and you did E well but maybe try this...So, yes, this is predicated on having a good teacher doing the evals, but often the feedback is just far more concrete than anything coming out of a student eval. But seriously, if you're at all serious about wanting to be a good teacher, get a mentor.

Everyone thinks they can teach well

Look, I definitely had my laundry list of things I thought my professors could do to improve classes, but I've since learned the error of my ways. That lesson or technique that sounds awesome in theory? It doesn't translate well to a classroom or it's impractical or not feasible or the students won't link it to the thing they're supposed to be learning or all of the above.

CodeAcademy is the poster child for this-I've used it before in classes, but only paired with a textbook 'cause I had many students complain that it only teaches what buttons to push and not why those buttons should be pushed. The textbook I paired it with has since gotten its own interactive website, which will make me very happy if I end up teaching that class again. (This is a sub motivation point-I barely ever know what I'm gonna teach next semester and it usually ends up changing, so from a time management perspective, I've got very little incentive to put a ton of time into making awesome course materials). And I'm calling out CodeAcademy just 'cause the tech world is very much on the "lets teach everyone" bandwagon while only now starting to realize that knowing how to teach is important too.

Takeway from the tangents?

Teaching was the coolest thing ever until I started doing it. Now it's one of the hardest things I've ever done and a craft I probably put way too much effort into trying to hone considering I don't plan to go into academia. But it's made me a better student 'cause I have way more insight into why my professors do things, it's made me a better programmer as I've had to deconstruct the whys and hows of coding in order to explain it, and hopefully it's made me a better teacher.

[Image via xkcd]