Beginning to teach at uni was pretty intimidating when I first started, even though it was only first year subjects and I clearly knew more about the subject than any of the students. But when I was an undergrad, I really looked up to the tutors, demonstrators and lecturers, and I thought "they really know stuff!"
I'm going to be completely honest here though; I've learned more while teaching these subjects than I actually did when I took them as part of my undergraduate degree! That's not a reflection on my teachers or the university I went to, it's more a reflection on the difference in maturity level between 20 year old me, and 28 year old me. But aside from the actual content and subject area knowledge that I've gained from teaching at uni, I've learnt a few really valuable lessons that I'll take with me in to all elements of my career, and I think some of them are worth sharing. So I've written a list (because who doesn't love lists!?):
1. You can't please everyone. You aren't a jar of Nutella. I got some anonymous feedback from students I was teaching a couple of weeks ago, and of the 14 comments, 13 of them were really positive. I'll give you some examples (actual comments from students):
"Great demonstrator, had some negative experience last year in chemistry labs but she's made my time in biochem so much more enjoyable and calm because I feel like I can just approach her without fear of judgement etc."
"Extremely helpful, organised and always willing to lend a hand"
Then there was this comment:
"She's kinda scary and anxie at times lol"
I was a bit flawed when I read that last one. Am I really scary? I went back through all the feedback I've received over the last two years to try and find some hints. Nothing jumped out at me, and I was confused and a bit hurt! I spoke to the subject coordinator about it to try and find out what I was doing wrong and her response was pretty blunt; "that person probably doesn't like you or was having a bad day, you can't please everyone!" That comment really struck me- I realised the subject coordinator is absolutely right and this is a really important lesson to learn, especially if you are trying really hard and pouring your heart and soul in to something. You (or I) will never be perfect, and we won't please everyone! So, if you get negative feedback or comments, sometimes you just have to take it on the chin!
2. "Young adults" aren't proper adults yet. They are "kidults". What is a kidult? They aren't kids, and they aren't adults. They are a weird hybrid in-between the two. From my observations, this period lasts roughly from 17-25 years of age.
It is characterised by a desire to not be told what to do and a simultaneous reluctance to ask for help. There is also often a total lack of knowledge about how to figure things out or where to begin. As a result, kidults frequently have no idea what they are doing, and refuse to ask for help. This can make it quite challenging to teach them very complex or difficult topics like molecular biology or biochemistry, or actually to teach them anything for that matter!
Many kidults are able to fumble their way through fine, but some need extra assistance. I have discovered that one of the most effective ways to help kidults who struggle is to give them enough freedom and respect to feel like they are independent, while providing a safety net to catch them and make sure they don't completely screw up.
3. One way of explaining something might make total sense to one person, and be completely confusing to another person. The most difficult thing about teaching is being able to explain things in MANY different ways! Whoever said 'if you can't do, teach' hasn't tried to teach biochemistry to 19 year-olds. I have gained a new level of respect for all the people who have taught me throughout my life! Baby sitting 20 kidults for 4 hours in a laboratory, putting out (actual) fires, mopping up spilled chemicals, fixing butchered calculations and doing damage control on botched experiments is physically exhausting, and I often have a sore throat at the end of the day from talking so much!
But the hardest part of all is explaining things in many different ways. This is like trying to think in a different language sometimes! Teaching biochemical calculations is a combination of algebra and chemistry, and there are multiple ways to do these types of calculations. Different people will favour different methods. When I'm explaining calculations and going through my method, there will inevitably be 2 or 3 students who tried to solve the equation in a different way, so I then need to try and solve for their method too.
And finally, the most important lesson of all...
4. People's ability to learn and do well at chemistry/maths/biology is dependent on the amount of effort they put in, not an inherent ability or natural intelligence. Interestingly, I've recently heard many other people in various fields saying they believe 'genius' should be redefined, not as talent, but a blend of passion and persistence, or “grit,” and I couldn't agree more! The realisation that your ability isn't predetermined and that you can become 'smarter' (if that is the right way to think about it?) is really empowering for some people. For me, having thought I was terrible at science and hating it for about 19 years of my life, this was a lesson I took a long time to learn. But when I eventually did learn it, I appreciated it all the more. So I strive to help my students realise this, and I really value and appreciate students who are working hard to try and improve. I will always give extra time to a student who wants to ask questions or needs another explanation after the class. If they are willing to stay behind, I am happy to help them!
If you are a teacher and any of this resonated with you, I'd love to hear what your thoughts are! Send me a message or comment below...
This blog is written by Dr. Sofia Bartlett; scientist, ocean lover, and curious human being. Her bio can be viewed here.
© Sofia Bartlett and Rogue Transmissions, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.