During my last tutorial, three out of thirteen students were asleep, but that’s ok. Because if we were to question our abilities as teachers every time a student falls asleep, we would be giving up before even trying. Here at SLING, we teach epidemiology and public health, and we are committed to delivering high-quality education in a relaxed, stimulating atmosphere. Behind the scenes, it is everything but relaxing.
Being a teaching assistant is tricky. One minute you’re throwing your own graduation hat in the air, the next they’re throwing YOU into a classroom packed with students and expectations. The first tutorial is the most crucial, because that’s when you are going to realize 1) what kind of teacher you would like to be and 2) what kind of teacher you actually are. If you’re lucky, your two visions will match. For me, it felt a bit like the first day of school, but no mum holding my hand and no candies anywhere. All 21 students were staring at their phones and nobody seemed to sense my presence. The room smelled like sweat and apathy. I didn’t think I would get the chance to leave that tutorial room with some dignity left, but I survived.
Ted Mosby’s first lecture, from How I met your mother (S5, Ep1)
Although students as a whole can be overwhelming, they really are the best part of teaching. If you allow them to, they themselves will teach you how to teach. They will do it inadvertently and they will suck up your energy in the process, but open the door for them and I promise: you will see yourself improve. Tutorials can be mentally draining, but they are a great opportunity to build up some basic teaching skills and turn yourself into a somewhat believable authority. And that will prepare you for round two, the Mount Everest for all teaching assistants: your first lecture.
The day will come when someone above you will assume you are fit for lecturing. That day is never going to coincide with the day when YOU think you’re fit for lecturing. But people do crazy things all the time, so just dive into it. Like all bumpy rides, this one, too, will open up unexpected, beautiful sceneries.
Bumpy ride towards Mount Everest (Picture by Gail Morrison)
On the morning of my first lecture, I was bloody tired. I had been chewing on my lecture slides for several weeks by then, but I still wasn’t happy. And the slides weren’t my worst anxiety. Because lecture slides are important, but firing up the spark of interest, that is the real responsibility here. Fascination for the subject –or lack thereof- is what students are going to take home. Overall, my first lecture was a numbing experience. Literally I mean, I blacked out for most of the time. One thing I remember though: as soon as it was over, I wanted to do it again.
Exam period meant another set of firsts for me: developing exam questions, grading, and –the most fun- invigilating. The deafening silence of the exam hall was only interrupted by the final speaker announcement –dreaded by the student, welcomed by the tutor: time is up, please put down your pencils, the semester ends: now.
At this point, you may think you’re off the hook, but the worst is yet to come: student evaluations. Truth be told, some of the comments are more helpful than a two-hour session with a good psychologist. Nonetheless, anonymous student evaluations can be a brutal experience. It is up to you to disentangle the knot and extract the valuable advice in there. My favourite comments were those that called me a “professor”. I shall remember that, whatever I do, I will always look like a professor to them.
Finding out that I enjoy teaching was a pleasant surprise for me and an unfortunate event for the student generations to come. I will admit this with no shame: it’s kinda great to finally be on the OTHER side of the classroom. This has little to do with power or revenge and a lot to do with the memory of those days when exam period meant mixed nuts for lunch and Christmas Eve in the library. Epidemiology really isn’t the easiest subject to teach. It’s got the maths, the logic, the complex terminology. And it can get pretty philosophical at times. But just like for research, our goal here at SLING is: constant improvement. So stay tuned and… Follow our teaching!