Mumblings about being an Inadequate Teacher

May 10, 2016 at 03:08 pm

Little by little this thing gets closer and closer. There was this event in the distant future: the outgoing SM retreat. Well, that just happened. Unreal. And now, the health workshop happened too, as did the crash-course in teaching.

At the outgoing SM retreat I shared the same feeling as a few others, that it feels so close and we just wanted to go do this. We're excited. I get home and suddenly the realization hits that there's a lot to do before then. I have to survive this quarter. Though, that is starting to look promising. And, I have a long way to go to be a good teacher.

After the crash-course in teaching, I am now starting to realize how much work it will be being a teacher. I have no idea what I'm getting into. I have presented on a few different topics in classes recently, but it took me forever to plan a talk on Bayesian Networks for Intro to AI, a talk on Spatial Databases for Intro to Database Systems, and now a talk on PID controllers in State Space form and maybe Auto-tuning PID controllers for Digital Control. I don't have time to plan something like 7 classes every day if they take this long. Granted, the topics are going to be material I already know fairly well. I'll know most of the math, but I won't know how to teach it.

As I looked out during my Bayesian Networks, Spatial Databases, a simple compiler, etc. talks, I didn't get the impression that I was conveying the material in an interesting and understandable way. Yet, on a different presentation, I have gotten comments that my senior project team made our machine learning explanations simple enough to understand, so maybe there is hope.

As a TA in Data Structures, I try to answer student's questions and somehow cannot word things well enough that they understand how to do it. I see students struggling but don't know to make them understand. I can do what they're trying to do, but I don't know how to show them how to do it. Explaining a coding challenge is one thing. I can tell them how to do what they want in C++. Explaining how they should restructure their program since they're not really going about this the right way is much harder. Unless I do it for them. But then they don't learn much.

What do I want them to learn? What should you come away from school knowing? How to learn? How to be motivated? How to interact with people? Provide evidence of having a certain basis skill set?

I came into college knowing how to program. I wanted to take the programming sequence anyway since I had never had formal programming training and there were bits and pieces I didn't know. I didn't learn because of an amazing class. I just used the class as an opportunity to program, gaining more practice.

I came into Digital Control class having taken Feedback and Control but not really knowing anything. First day: chose your projects. Shoot. I know nothing. Time to freak out and frantically read the book trying to catch up only to find out that I've done more in the class than anybody else so far (not really abnormal if I like a class or project). The professor has said he wants us to be able to learn on our own since most of us are about to graduate. So, yeah, apparently I can do that. How do I get students to dive into a subject they're interested in even if I'm not that great at teaching it?

A student has a question. We sit there staring at the screen. Nope. No idea. I've output strings to the console so many times in the past and never had a problem. We call over the professor. She stares at the screen making a few suggestions. After trying a variety of things, I tell the student to copy and paste the error message into Google. Stack Overflow. Forgot the "#include <string>" at the top of the C++ program. Problem solved. In many instances, if I had the questions students (or friends or parents or coworkers) ask I would have first went to Google if I had not in the past run into the problem (see Xkcd #627 -- and that is not really a joke).

I was helping people survive the calculus classes. Was I actually hindering them by the way I was helping them? It's great for me, having an opportunity to explain everything, since then I end up really knowing the material. I did great in those classes. They didn't do as well. Am I partly to blame? I wonder if I should be teaching them how to find the answers. I would struggle for hours on those WebWork problems. If they would too, they probably would come away knowing the material better. Am I holding them back by my teaching strategies, telling them how to solve a problem rather than telling them how I'd approach figuring out how to solve the problem? Or, is this maybe more of a motivational issue?

Really I want them to come away having the motivation to go do and learn how to do awesome stuff. Maybe not in programming, but in some field. I don't know how to do that. I'm teaching some STEM camps at Sunset Lake this summer, so by the time I get to Yap, I'll at least have had a little bit of experience teaching something related.