What teaching has taught me

In some way or another, I have loved teaching since I was young. As a first grader, I went with my mom to parent-teacher conferences so I could read to the parents waiting for their appointments. I bribed my younger sisters to play school with me, so that I could teach them the skills I was learning in school and assign them homework (for the record, they did not complete the homework). As soon as I was old enough, I established my own tutoring business and learned how rewarding teaching can be. As an undergraduate my job was to hold office for cog sci students struggling with assignments.

This quarter, I gained a lot more experience in conventional teaching: standing up in front of a group (of 10 high school students, in the case of my SAT class, or 50 undergraduates in the case of my Teaching Assistant position), lecturing, and doing whatever I could think of to get them to voluntarily participate. Especially towards the beginning of the quarter, standing in front of the class gave me (literally) cold feet and sweaty armpits. But I dealt with these consequences, and after reflecting, have some new ideas about teaching.

On the broadest level, teaching is such a unique form of human interaction. It has similarities to parenting: there is an established hierarchy, often based on age and experience, and welcomed by both parties. A teacher wants to be more knowledgable than his student, and a student wants her teacher to be more knowledgeable than she. If successful, a teacher-student relationship brings positive feelings to both people involved. The student feels accomplished by learning, and the teacher by teaching. When a student is successful, he and his teacher likely feel similarly to how a child and parent feel when the child is successful. Unlike in a parent-child relationship, though, interactions between teachers and students are almost always centered on one topic. Thus, they’re deep and focused interactions, as opposed to a parent’s varied and broad interactions with a child. The similarities are even more interesting to me in light of this difference.

I had both positive and negative experiences in the classroom. When a college student was unhappy with a quiz grade, she e-attacked me. The contraction “y’all” appeared 4 times (though one of those times it was in the form of “y’all’s,” an entirely new form to me) alongside a handful of spelling and grammatical errors and an accusation that the teaching team doesn’t want our students to succeed. And of course the icing on the cake: “Sent from my iPhone.” Luckily this message was comical enough that it wasn’t upsetting, but I’d prefer this sort of quasi-aggression if possible.

But on the other hand, plenty of students expressed positive experiences in my classes. One student wrote to me, “I was not expecting to learn this much, and I’m kind of sad that it is almost over.” Don’t worry, I want to assure her, I won’t tell anyone that you seem to kind of like our SAT classes. But I might tell them how much I do.