Thursday, April 30, 2009

Mask of Teaching

At 6pm on Wednesday, April 29th, I completed my last duty as a GSI (graduate student instructor, for those who don't remember what that stands for): proctoring the Intro Genetics final.

One of my students (upon turning in her final exam) said to me, "You're literally the BEST GSI I've ever had. I'm not even kidding, seriously."

Later another one of my students (upon turning her final exam) said to me, "I just wanted to let you know that you are probably THE best science GSI I've ever had. One of my friends actually transferred into your section because his GSI sucked and I told him that you were amazing."

At one point, the professor came into the lecture hall where we were proctoring and whispered to me, "Several students in my office hours tell me that you do a great job explaining things to them. Good job, I thought I should tell you."

Much later, a friend (whose friend is in one of my discussion sections) told me, "So my friend K says you're her favorite GSI."

Clearly I must be doing something right, right? I mean, I somehow achieved the highest section attendance (almost everyone came to my later sections) out of all the GSIs, and discussion sections were completely voluntary so no one had to come. Funny story about that actually: on the day of my last discussion, one of my students (a male nurse who's older than me) brought his two little kids - around age 3 to 5 - to my discussion section. Somehow he felt that my discussion sections were necessary enough to attend, even though he could've easily skipped to take care of his kids? (Btw, his kids were adorable, and I just so happened to bring cookies that day, and they loved them.)

The Mask of Teaching, I LOVE wearing it. It brightens my day (usually) when I have to go in to teach my discussion sections. And it feels pretty damn good to receive such high praise and comments about the way I teach. I don't know what it is I do exactly, I just sort of teach on-the-fly with a very bare-boned lesson plan in my head. I do what I feel like would most benefit them in the 1 hour (well, 50 minutes) we have together. I have, however, identified a few things I think have helped a lot:

1. Make it relevant.
Students tend to not like the theoretical stuff. They need a way to take the concepts learned and integrate them into something they can relate to on a personal level. I often used the example of cancer genetics, because it fits so well with many topics. I also tried to link up some concepts to things like cardiovascular disease, family history, etc.

2. Organization.
It definitely helps to know what you're doing, what order you're doing it in, and how long you expect it to take. Even better if you've internalized that organization so you don't have to always have it in front of you.

3. Reflecting questions.
As I work out a problem on the board or present a concept, I constantly ask my students about the next "step." What happens now? What do you think I should do? Why do you think this is? How do you think this works? Etcetra. They may not always answer (and in one of my classes, they rarely do), but they are thinking and considering. This is much more effective in office hours where they have "nowhere to run." I force the students to try to solve the problem on their own, with me basically giving them sign posts and clarifications - only give directions if they're lost.

4. Visual learners.
I always draw up a diagram on the board and describe what I draw as I draw. Genetics is not a very tangible subject, so you have to somehow make things visual so they can more easily and readily comprehend it. Also, you have to actually draw it out, it does no good to just flash a picture or a diagram up. You need to walk through how the diagram's constructed, what makes it tick, so to speak.

5. Understanding their needs.
I think one of my greatest assets is that I understand where many of them are coming from. It wasn't so long ago that I was "in their shoes." I understand what many want out of the class (that is, nothing to do with it) and I hoped to make them actually interested in genetics so that things stick in their heads. So I put myself in their shoes, "If I were taking this course again, what would I want to learn? What would make it interesting and relevant? What do I want to take out of it?" With that in mind, I try to meet them at that level. The professor actually remarked (with a hint of sarcasm), "No wonder why they liked you. You're a pre-med GSI for pre-meds."

Anyway, I seriously LOVE teaching. I'm a little sad that it's over now. :( I taught a mini-course with JW-M a year ago on HIV/AIDS to 10 or so freshman undergrads. We discussed the social, biological, cultural, and political aspects of this disease (well, I did biological and cultural; JW-M did social and political). And now Intro Genetics. It's rather fulfilling, I find. You see that glimmer in their eyes, and you know you've reached someone, you've piqued someone's interest. And perhaps that someone will take that interest and do something great with it.

Teaching >>> research, hands down. Seriously, it's kind of hard to describe how much I've enjoyed teaching. While it was my job, it certainly didn't feel like one.


Hish said...

Good job Mr.GSI! I hope I'm as successful as you when I start teaching my classes later this year :P

Anonymous said...

Have you considered making teaching a bigger part of your future? You love it & you're good at it - what more can you ask out of a career? Regardless - good job! I'm sure you have a great sense of satisfaction because it's radiating from this post

naturgesetz said...

Yeah, what goleftatthefork said.

Don't forget this, and if you ever decide that med school or the practice of medicine isn't for you after all, think about trying your hand at teaching. You'd probably need a doctorate to teach at the college level, and high school students are not exactly the same as college students. But if you can motivate kids who don't want to be there, you can probably do it with high school kids too.

Anonymous said...

It isn't a mask of teaching, it's part of who you are and what you do. Aek IS a teacher, it's not merely some hat he puts on sometimes when he wants to eh?

Aek said...

Hish: Thanks! :D

goleftatthefork, naturgesetz: Thanks, but I don't think I'd only want to teach. And I really don't want to get a doctorate because it'd be that much more work to tack on to my life (plus, I don't really want to do research any more). High school students . . . can be hard to handle, not sure I'd want to hazzard that. Besides, patients need a bit of teaching too, just a different kind. :P

James: What're you talking about, lol? The masks are me, and they are my hats. Just because I like teaching doesn't mean I'm always teaching nor does it mean I want to do all day long, lol (hence no K-12 teaching for me, ever).

Anonymous said...

I still think "mask" is an inappropriate term for it.

And anyway, it's not like when you're not teaching that the teaching part of Aek has been excised completely, and then magically reappears when you need it. The teaching is there influencing you and who you are no matter whether your actively teaching or not.

Tyler said...

it's really, really great when you end up with a good teacher. a good teacher can always spark interest with a subject, while boring teachers just put you off.

i think if the teacher likes what he/she is doing, and cares about it, then that will pass onto the students, and vice versa if the teacher is bored with his job, or doesnt care.

cvn70 said...


Some people can just teach and when you find one its evident bu how the class reacts and what it learns. Unfortunately htese individuals are far few but when one is found he satnds apart. While you may not want to be a treacher i believe youwill find that you will have to effectively communicate with many and these skills you possess will translate to that also

good luck in your future studies and take care and be safe


Aek said...

James: This has been (more or less) my definition of my masks all along. Sometimes they're there to hide a part of me, sometimes they're there to bring out a part of me. But all my masks ARE a part of me. I choose which and when to don a particular mask, this is no different. If I were not a GSI, would I still have this mask? If I don't have my Masks of Sexuality, does that make me any less straight/bi/gay?

Tyler: Yeah, good teachers are pretty amazing, I think we can all attest to that. It's necessary that a teacher likes what he/she is doing, but that alone isn't sufficient if the teacher can't convey his/her passion in a way that the students can understand.

Aek said...

cvn70: For the most part I agree - some people are naturally great teachers. I fully understand the need for effective communication in my future profession, after all I'll have to teach patients about their health and how to manage it. At some point (as a doctor) I'd love the opportunity to teach a seminar to undergrads, or something, on a topic of my interest and choosing.

call.the.shots said...

that's nice to know that ur students appreciate u. u seem like u do care about making sure they understand the materials.