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How do I become the best teacher I possibly can?
April 9, 2012 3:23 AM   Subscribe

What are some tips for becoming a better teacher?

I have zero teaching experience.

I have just begun teaching the basics of programming to a group of adults. Both the group and I are participating in this exercise on a purely voluntary basis.

In order to be the best teacher I possibly can, I can think of doing the following things right:

1. Be strong and thorough with with the material myself before each class. I've been coding on and off for a reasonably long time - I am no star coder but I do have a good grasp of the fundamentals.
2. Encourage learning by doing in class (more so, given this is coding).
3. Reasonably challenging - and creative/funny/non-boring - homework to keep the students busy and engaged between classes.
4. Working towards a real-life goal (say like building a small computer game), so that the students can actually apply what they are learning. At the end of the class, they should look back and see something tangible that they built.

I've seen a lot of bad teachers in my time, and I absolutely do not want to be one of those. Broadly, I expect these challenges:

1. Not everyone will be equally "gifted". How do I make sure that no one gets left behind in class without slowing the learning of the quicker ones?
2. How do I try to make sure that the students "retain" skills that they will learn here? Is there some part of learning in class that can be made reasonably similar to learning to ride a bike (i.e, harder to forget?)
3. How do I make sure my classes are not dull and boring? Are teachers like actors on stage who know the script but can still be malleable to needs of the audience?

Please share your experiences of teaching, any tips that you may have, or any resources you can point me towards. Thanks!
posted by rahulrg to Education (11 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
posted by fairmettle at 4:09 AM on April 9, 2012

To your questions:

1. Have the faster students assist teaching the slower ones. Teaching helps you really identify your own gaps in knowledge, so it won't actually slow the faster students, it will help them, too.

2. The above is one way to achieve this goal. Also, your instinct is right on working toward real-life goals, doing more active stuff to reinforce the rote learning of theory, and making projects that are reasonably challenging. Those all help. Now, to tie it all together - your first class (or maybe not the very first one, depending on the baseline your students are coming from...more on that below) should be a discussion session. Let the students figure out exactly what they want to get out of the class and how to get there. You should be guiding this discussion to make sure the final expectations and projects decided on are attainable, and more broadly applicable (maybe, depending on what you want them to get out of the class), but the discussion should be driven by the class's interests. From there you go on to design your coursework in more detail.

3. Again, good instincts! The analogy to acting is extremely appropriate. Many teachers develop a "stage" persona even. You will want to have a script for each class, but be ready to improv.

Now, some general notes:

Don't bother drawing up lesson plans yet. Partly because of the above, but partly because you are almost certainly going to start the class out seriously overestimating the rate of progress your students will make, because you only have your own knowledge base to draw on. Once you feel confident your students understand basic concepts, you will still want to estimate that they would take three to four times longer than you to complete any given assignment/task.

Speaking of only having your own knowledge base to draw from, that's another discussion you should have with your students. You need to know where they are coming from. It seems obvious, but a lot of (bad) teachers start their classes off making assumptions about what their students know that are dead wrong. Here's a fascinating video (click the VoD icon at bottom right) about that (it's not a subject matter directly relevant to your situation, but still worth it if you're at all interested in pedagogy).

To be engaging, be engaged! Make sure this is something you like talking about. If it's boring to you, it will be boring to your students. Keep that in mind when you're guiding the discussion about the final goals of the class. That doesn't mean the final product should be something that would have challenged you, but be sure you see some opportunities in the plan to tie what the students are learning to things you find interesting. In particular, try to tie concepts they are learning to experiences you've had where knowledge of that concept helped you overcome an interesting problem, and tell those stories.

Good luck!
posted by solotoro at 5:11 AM on April 9, 2012

3. How do I make sure my classes are not dull and boring? Are teachers like actors on stage who know the script but can still be malleable to needs of the audience?

An important realization for me, as a college teacher, has been that classrooms are performative spaces that vary widely depending on the group of people and their particular moods. Unfortunately that means that you can't figure out now, before jumping into your particular class, exactly what voice you'll want to cultivate for your pedagogical goals.

Please do not use the jokes from fairmettle's link. Excessive movie-quoting is annoying to 95% of the population, and the author either 1) doesn't pull them off like he thinks, perceiving awkward laughter as genuine, or 2) pulls them off because of some rare combination of personality traits (I'd imagine cheesy-dad-qualities) that you probably don't have. You're right about the actor thing; you have to figure out your audience every time. Comedians talk about finding one's voice by cultivating those traits that audiences respond to, and I think that this is good advice for teaching. Maybe your persona is one that matches with cheesy jokes, maybe your thing will be intense and sharp description followed by encouraging Q&A. You'll find your strengths out quickly, and talking to other teachers will help you hone and experiment. A crucial strength that you already have is self-awareness.

Every course is a fleeting social experiment, where pedagogical goals, course content, student personalities, and teacher sub-personas meet for a tantalizing few dozen hours. It's the most creative thing I've ever done, and the most rewarding. It's also the most tiring and, sometimes, the most frustrating. You're gonna love it.

Mefi-mail me if you want to dialog once things get started.
posted by farishta at 5:46 AM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

rahulrg: "1. Not everyone will be equally "gifted". How do I make sure that no one gets left behind in class without slowing the learning of the quicker ones?

I handle this in my intro programming courses by giving the students a variety of homework assignments to choose from, from drop-dead simple ones to more challenging ones. I usually introduce this option after the third or fourth week, after I have a sense of where everyone's skill level is.

2. How do I try to make sure that the students "retain" skills that they will learn here? Is there some part of learning in class that can be made reasonably similar to learning to ride a bike (i.e, harder to forget?)

I try to think of mnemonics (or better, encourage the class to come up with them) or other little "tricks" to help with retention. But also remember that a lot of this out of your control. There's only so much you can do with students you see once(?) a week. A lot of what goes into retention of concepts is up to them.

3. How do I make sure my classes are not dull and boring? Are teachers like actors on stage who know the script but can still be malleable to needs of the audience?"

Some people are going to find you dull and boring (or just take a disliking to you), no matter what you do. :-) Don't fret about that. But there are some basic things you can do to make yourself the dullest, most infuriating teacher who ever lived: Read from slides or the book. Look down. Use your inside voice. Mumble. Make obscure references under your breath. Never ask questions where you expect the students to come up with the answers. Go really fast through an explanation because you figure it's so easy everyone should already understand it. Don't learn your students' names. Use jargon or other unusual vocabulary without explanation.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:33 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Learn how to make a C+ feel like a congressional medal of honour, and an A– feel like a slap in the face.
posted by nickrussell at 6:34 AM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

"Are teachers like actors on stage who know the script but can still be malleable to needs of the audience?""

I prefer to have a shortish outline -- often just a single page for three hours of lecture -- of what I'm going to talk about, to keep me on point and going the right direction, and then I know the material well enough that I can just talk. This lets me adjust on the fly -- spend more time on certain topics that seem interesting to the class, derail into a sidenote when it turns out they're missing a chunk of background, hurry through something they're bored with or go quickly through something less-important when we spent a chunk of time on something earlier in the class.

I almost always take questions on the fly, but sometimes I'll say "Let me finish this thought before questions" or sometimes I'll take a question and say, "Hold that question, because we're going to get to it in five minutes and you're going to look really smart for thinking of it first." I still always stop at the end of a section and ask for questions, since not all students are willing to interrupt, even though my lectures are pretty dialogic.

Use a performing voice that is loud from your diaphragm, not your throat, or you'll talk yourself hoarse. Remember water. Silences are never as long as you think they are, let them stretch out. Be honest if they stump you, it makes them so happy. This might just be me, but I find it WAY easier to time my lecture to an analog wall clock -- I find it really hard to time myself on a digital clock. I guess I need the visual of the minute hand showing me where I am in the hour.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:04 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have students work together on small in-class assignments; i.e., "Using what we've just learned about for loops, turn to the person sitting next to you and come up with a program to print out a diamond shape."
posted by 200burritos at 7:08 AM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm a coder and I've witnessed just how mind-boggling alien programming can be to beginners. It can be a very abstract activity and to learn the basics you usually need to learn and memorize lots of discrete building blocks.

I would suggest being as concrete, practical and visual as possible, preferably even more (we programmers tend to underestimate just how arcane our craft can be). Pick a language that your students can get started with with minimal fuss (no compilation nonsense, no bash commands, no complex IDEs, etc). JavaScript is incredibly underestimated in this regard because all you need is an editor, a html file and a browser. Doesn't get any easier.

As much as possible, try to connect the knowledge to your students. Ask people what their interests and hobbies are and use the information in the examples and exercises. Someone likes basketball? Use the names of famous basketball players in a SWITCH statement. Metaphors are very useful in simplyfying new and abstract knowledge by relating them to things your students already know, e.g. "These IF statements are like forks in the road where each fork has a sign (the conditions)."

Programming, like maths, can be unintuitive to many people and just because they find it interesting and useful doesn't mean that it comes easy to them, the reason being they cannot connect the various dots into a meaningful pattern. In these situations the general solution to apply is reflective repetition, i.e. to repeat a certain topic guided by reflective questions so many times that your students don't have to actively reason about the topic but can simply apply the knowledge. So if a student finds it challenging to differentiate between IF and SWITCH statements, make them write many examples that focus on if/switch statements and ask them questions that forces them to reflect and connect the dots. Example: is it possible to rewrite these IF statements using another conditional? If so, which one would you use?

Also, you might find Zen Shaw's approach to learning programming inspirational because it focuses on verbalization, muscle memory and repetition.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 7:29 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

My favorite piece of advice:

You know," said Simon L'vovich, "everyone thinks that the essence of pedagogy is in psychology, but it's not. The essence of pedagogy is in ethics."
posted by grog at 8:33 AM on April 9, 2012

1. Not everyone will be equally "gifted". How do I make sure that no one gets left behind in class without slowing the learning of the quicker ones?

Peer-teaching can be a great tool as mentioned above.

But, also, this is some advice that I wish I'd internalized earlier in my teaching career:

Accept that some of the students in the class lack the background, skills and motivation to do well in your class. Don't turn your back on struggling students, but also, do not pour 80% of your effort into the 20% of the students (or, hopefully, less than that!) who are not doing well.

Don't burn yourself out emotionally by taking poor student performance personally. In adult ed, you probably won't have too many slackers who don't care, but you will always find students who are struggling with the material because they don't have the knowledge and skills they need. It is, to some degree, your job to get them up to speed, but also recognize that you can't hold yourself responsible for teaching everyone who can't remember order-of-operations rules from one week to the next to be a proficient programmer. You can point out to them what skills are deficient, point them to appropriate resources, but they have to do the work to get up to speed, and don't blame yourself if they can't. Some students can be a sucking vortex of time and energy; don't let them sap energy that should be distributed among all the hardworking members of the class.

In adult ed, you are likely to encounter a student who drags the class to a standstill by asking the same naive/basic questions over and over again. If you're keeping up with your grading you'll know if these questions are things that are puzzling everyone, or if it's just one person who can't get it. Redirect them to talk to you during office hours or before/after class. Give an appropriate amount of attention outside of class time, but don't let them hold you back from presenting the students who are keeping up with exciting challenges!

2. How do I try to make sure that the students "retain" skills that they will learn here? Is there some part of learning in class that can be made reasonably similar to learning to ride a bike (i.e, harder to forget?)

Plan your course so that important concepts are re-encountered again, and again, and again, with days to weeks between each encounter so that they almost forget it and are forced to dredge it out of memory and reacquaint themselves with it several times. Be forewarned: students hate this. They want each set of ideas presented in a nice compact unit so they can do the reading, have the lecture, do the homework, have a quiz, and be tested on it all within, like, two or three weeks. They'll get mad when you force them to recall something from a month ago—because it's hard mental work! But it helps them learn it for the long-term. (Some reading on long-term retention)

3. How do I make sure my classes are not dull and boring? Are teachers like actors on stage who know the script but can still be malleable to needs of the audience?

Your classes will be most interesting to your students when they are clear and relevant. Unfortunately, as you have sensed, there is a tension between laying everything out in a logical structure (being clear), and adapting on the fly to student questions (honing your relevance). Also, the clear logical structure that makes perfect sense to you (and other experienced practitioners in your field) might be utterly baffling to first-time learners.

I tend to present information in mini-lectures no longer than 10-15 minutes. Each lecture is coherent and well-organized, but then there's a break for the students to put the idea into practice, and for the students to discover where they misunderstand the theory I've just presented. (Indeed, many activities are designed precisely the target misconceptions novices tend to bring to the classroom.) By observing students as they work on these activities I'm able to determine whether they basically get it and we can move on, or whether I need to spend some more time explaining the material, perhaps in a different way. (A great way to accomplish this is to have a student explain their understanding to the class.)

Do not try to be entertaining, don't try to be perfect, just try to be yourself. You're going to make mistakes, but learn from them and move on. It's clear from your question that you're someone who cares deeply about your students and your subject matter. Embrace that and it will take you a long, long way.

(Also, don't reinvent the wheel! Steal, steal, steal exercises, activities and questions from good programming books. Tweak, modify and make them your own. If you know any, talk to some experienced instructors. I've never known a teacher to be less than generous with their course materials.)
posted by BrashTech at 2:44 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have been a teacher for 18 years and have been both successful and unsuccessful over the years. What I have learned over this time is that there are a few constants that help to make teaching a little easier than it actually is:

1. Being organized.
2. Giving fast feedback/graded material.
3. Giving clear instructions (Power Points or other group presentation methods are a must to help students avoid confusion- and to keep you from repeating your simple instructions over and over).

Personalities differ and other theories strategies should also be considered, but these are three basics beyond the metaphysical qualities. For example, if a person is caring, kind, creative, charismatic and encourages group work, but lacks the three that I listed, they will have a very tough time teaching. Good luck!
posted by boots77 at 9:36 AM on April 10, 2012

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