Often grad students are also teaching assistants, and it is also often the first time they are “on the other side”. A grad student with no experience in teaching: that was me 6 years ago. Since then I’ve taught in heterogenous contexts ranging from grading, leading labs, teaching one-on-one, taught tutorials, as well as running workshops on teaching. Nearing the end of my time at UVic, I feel the urgency to leave you with a few things I have learnt over the years. Most of my teaching experience consists of one-on-one and small groups of about 30, and it is in these areas that I draw my advice from.

While I had no experience in teaching, I had experienced good (and bad) teaching aplenty. Thus at the beginning I modelled myself on teachers I respected and admired, and a certain Ms. Anne B. strongly influenced my budding teaching persona. Anne bordered on the legendary. She was a Brit iron-lady somewhere between her 40s and 60s — no one knew for sure — who runs, climbs, and ski better than most young men. She was also a hard-nosed, no-nonsense taskmaster who sets the bar high and demands the best of us. She was damn serious, I thought, and I shall try to be damn serious too.

Being “damn serious” is hard work. You have to swallow the jokes, and press the lips tightly together when something funny happens (serious people don’t smile, right?) Besides needing to get brow massages after all that frowning, what’s truly damning about being “damn serious” is that I tended to never connect with the students beyond the instrumental level. Some mental imagery that describes my role with the students: that I am the (properly sterilized) Syringe of Knowledge, or that I’m the Sage-on-the-Stage. In both cases, it’s a strictly professional relationship consisting of a dissemination of information. Good teachers I had in the past seems to do something different from that, but I didn’t have the vocabulary for it: after all, you’re either serious or frivolous, and the latter is a Very Bad Thing.

Of course, the secret is that there are other ways to frame the teacher-student relationship. I think the correct attitude I was looking for was not seriousness, but sincerity. The sincere teacher, like the serious teacher, tries her best and asks the right things of the kids, but does so not out of professional duty so much as she cares.**Here I’m channeling Gabriel Marcel, in particular his distinction between the I-it and I-thou relationships.

Attitudes provide a scope of the allowable personas. Being sincere opens up a new role, the Guide-on-the-Side, in addition to the Sage-on-the-Stage. There are times when the Sage is useful, but I find myself being the Guide far more often. Sages in my little world don’t smile, knows everything, make no mistakes, and comes with a load of performance anxiety when you’re just pretending to be one.**After some time in academia, I suspect that this Sage is a construct of my imagination that never could have existed at first place.

The imagery of a Guide reinforces modes of thinking that is useful in teaching: simplicity, humility, and a sense of collaboration. As an instructor, being the Guide (off the pedestal) helps getting feedback about how much got across, how you are doing, and personally, the thought that I’m “talking” to a kid makes marking somewhat less of a chore. For students — this is especially true for students new to the university — like to know that they’re not just a number. I think we humans have an innate need to connect with one another, and the benefits of having a connection goes both ways.

What are some things you can do to foster that connection? The first and foremost is to learn their names. The method I use to help remember names is to ask them to say it, repeat it immediately, then use it frequent and often. Repeating it immediately is important, as sometimes the mind wanders and it’s as if you’ve never heard the name at first place. The second is to take the time to actively listen when it’s feasible to do so.**“Active listening” is a specific communication technique; Wikipedia has a good entry and leads to learning resources.

This “connection thing” can be hard and sometimes bring you to places you never expected at first place. Kids, like everyone else, are dealing with lots of stuff in their lives, and they may feel comfortable enough to share that with you in confidence. While intervention is almost never necessary, it’s useful to be aware of the non-academic resources on campus because the student may not be aware that they exist (and is usually free for students). Here at UVic, in addition to one-on-one counselling, Counselling Services hosts groups and workshops on anxiety, time-management, and studying techniques that you may find helpful to refer students to. The ombudsperson can help mediate academic conflict, and the Resource Center for Students with a Disability may be able to help with students that have an invisible disability for whom the playing field is currently equal but not fair.

Earlier I talked about teaching with simplicity, and I should clarify that the adjective associated is simple and distinct from simplistic. They are not at all equal. To teach something simplistically is to lower the standards and bring the goal down. Simplify keeps the standards where they are but strives for the most direct, clutter-free path to get from A to B. (To the natural science minded readers: to make simplistic is a state function but to simplify is a path function.) Being an infovore, I often have to reining in myself with the remainder that when the kids and I are in a room, it’s about them (as opposed to the ego-boosting pleasures of telling endless trivia).

My insistence of the simple is often interpreted as advocating a particular way of lesson- planning, that we should teach the skeleton of the material before hanging the wobbly nuances on. That is one of the patterns one can choose but certainly not the only one. While being simple means eliminating the superfluous, the actual methodology of teaching depends on context and there are other ways of lesson structuring that is more efficient than the layering method.

UVic specific: Where can you find out more about different teaching methods? The Learning and Teaching Center located in the Harry Hickman Building. The LTC hosts workshops for teachers, as well as a library on pedagogy.

Moving from the strategic to the tactical, it’s frustrating when you’re explained the damn thing (twice!) but they “just don’t get it”. It’s human to be annoyed**And/or defensive — I couldn’t have explained poorly, right? and I don’t know the way around it. Remember how things are often not binary (yes/no), but exists in a continuum? Some students are moved forward by your explanation and are now stuck at a different point, but they’re trained to say “I don’t get it” when they see themselves as not having the whole solution. Asking questions like “can you walk me through your solution?” or “Can you tell me where it’s not making sense for you?” helps opens up a dialogue and let you assess the current condition.

Sometimes being the Guide is trying in ways other than intellectually. The kids will some- times push your buttons and test your boundaries (deliberately or otherwise). Saying No is hard when you’ve built a personal relationship with them – indeed, for many of us, saying No in any context is hard. If this is true for you, the “gentle refusal” is a technique that shifts the frame from an antagonistic denial to a collaborative solution-seeking one. I learnt about this from trainers on the NEED crisis line, and it had served me well for several years. The “gentle refusal” is a three step process:

  • Acknowledge request – “I hear that you need the weekend to write this take-home mid- term because you had a family emergency that requires you to be out of town.” By stating the request, you show that they are understood, and it also prevents misunderstanding.
  • Indicate unambiguously the refusal – “I cannot give you extra time because that would not be fair to other students.” The key here is stake your refusal firmly and clearly. The justification is context-dependent and may not be necessary.
  • Tell them what you can offer – “What I can do is to make up a personalized version for you, have you start on Friday, and you get the same 3 days that the other students get. Would that work for you?” Here we are trying to seek out a position that works for all parties involved. Ask if it’s what they need; this avoids replacing an unfavorable position with an equally untenable one.

With practice this becomes second nature, and it’s applicable not only to your interactions with students, but also peers and prof/coordinators.

Interacting with your peers and prof/coordinators is the other part of teaching that new teachers don’t often think about. Your colleagues are incredibly important people in your career. Often they are happy to act as a resource: if you’re teaching a course for the first time, ask for advice. Ask if you can sit in their class. Ask if they can sit in your class and give you feedback. Students are very sensitive to whether you care, but they seldom have the vantage point to judge the intellectual composition of your teaching. Your peers can fill in the evaluation gap.

In our department, teaching is part of the stipend package, but my supervisor offered to cover that portion of the stipend so I focus on research. The decision to not take the offer is a decision that I do not regret. Teaching has been a rewarding learning experience for me, and I hope that will be the case for you as well.

About the Author: Jon Chui is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Chemistry. He is a recent recipient of the departmental award for Excellence in Teaching as well as the university-wide Andy Farquharson Award for Excellence in Graduate Student Teaching. You can contact him at jkwchui@uvic.ca.  This is originally published in the UVic LTC newsletter.

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