Teach: the lessons I learnt

Summary

  • Teaching is a tough job. But it’s a chance to inspire the future generation of bright minds to make the world a better place.
  • Assuming everyone knows what you know can be a bad assumption. Learning is a process so establish what your students already know and build on it.
  • Provide a safe platform for students to ask questions. Being inquisitive never hurt learning.
  • Get into the minds of your students and try to see things through their eyes. Remember, empathy, compassion and patience are good attributes to have.
  • Communication is key for teaching. It’s not a case of pouring information down your students’ throat. Engage and interact to make the experience more memorable.
  • You won’t know everything about your subject so you’ll always be on your own personal journey as a student of some sort.
Teach spelled out with scrabble blocks.
I always looked at teachers as those looking to inspire as well as educate rather than someone telling you what you need to know.

Introduction

Teaching is a tough gig. At times, it can feel thankless. Other times it can feel like the greatest job in the world. I have spent years of my life in education as both a student and a teacher and I have experienced the entire British education system from start to finish as a student. Moreover, I even spent a few years abroad learning under a different education system. I have also taught lessons in secondary schools and I’ve delivered lectures to postgraduates for several years. Throughout my time in academia, I obtained a teaching qualification: postgraduate certificate in higher education. It qualifies me to teach at university level.

I won’t say I’ve seen it all, but I’ve seen a lot. With that being said, I’m going to give my advice and opinion on the do’s and don’ts of an educator. At the end of the day, it’s only my opinion however I will aim to be as fair and balanced as possible drawing on my own personal experience as a student and teacher.

Respect

I recall once watching an episode of Educating Yorkshire. On that episode was a young student getting ready to take his English oral exam. But this young man had a much bigger challenge to overcome and that was his speech impediment. The whole episode, the student could not string together a sentence but his teacher worked with him tirelessly to overcome his stammer. In the end, his teacher had his student listen to some music through a pair of earphones while reading a script. This was a trick the teacher took from the movie The King’s Speech. The student began to speak! He was seemingly cured! That episode really inspired me and it gave me even more admiration and respect for the profession. But more so for the teacher.

We all remember our favourite teachers. They are normally the ones that inspired and encouraged you to achieve something you never thought possible. They believed in you. And because of this, you wanted to try that much harder. Respect was earnt. And it’s a two-way street. As a teacher, we must also respect the students. Try to remember that you were once in the shoes of the student and there was once someone that inspired you.

Don’t assume people know what you know

It used to frustrate me to no end when someone more knowledgeable than me would discuss a matter assuming I knew as much as them. It was a common occurrence in higher education and it’s quite flattering to think that some people believe you know as much as them. But the reality is is that it’s not always the reality. Most people are too shy to admit that they do not understand much of what is being said by nodding away nervously.

When delivering a lecture, I always aimed to poll the students. I’d try to find out what their background is for example chemistry, physics, chemical engineering, etc. Knowing this helped me to tailor the lecture to suit the audience because physicist, chemists and chemical engineers think similarly but also differently. Some terminology is known by one group and is not well known by others. This allowed me to explain certain concepts during my lecture so that no one was left behind. But’ I’d also encourage the audience to ask questions as much as they needed to. This is important. I understand that not everything I say will be understood and I wanted to give everyone the opportunity for further explanation where necessary.

There is no such thing as a silly question only a silly answer

This was a saying I heard from a few colleagues in academia. Also, it was encouraged during my stint in industry where I’d often see signs posted around the shopfloor stating: ‘If you don’t know, ask!’. It’s normal to feel embarrassed to ask questions for further clarification after someone gives an explanation. During my younger years as a school student, I’d feel awkward asking questions to help me better understand my teacher for fear of being made to look foolish. I recall some teachers chastising me for not immediately understanding. Getting rid of this when I became an educator was important to me. I would encourage questions when I teach.

Oftentimes, I’d pose questions to the audience as a litmus test. This would help to engage with my students but also determine how much they understood. It’s not full-proof. Sometimes, students weren’t in the mood to answer questions. That’s fine. I’d swiftly move on by answering the question for them, but I’d leave the option on the table.

Get in the minds of your students

This is a tough one because you’re not a mind reader. However, you can imagine what it’s like being a student in your lesson or lecture sitting there trying to follow everything you say. It’s not easy. The reality is some students don’t want to be there. So, how can you make the learning experience interesting? I’d always mix up my lectures with a combination of presentation slides and formative assessment.

I made sure that my presentation slides weren’t just chunk after chunk of text rather I’d throw in some colourful diagrams, animations and videos where possible. The formative assessment would be an opportunity for students to have a break from listening to me. This would be an opportunity for them to engage with me and with each other in the form of classroom-based activities. I saw this as a way to promote learning. I would initiate discussions, group activities and even practical exercises if I felt this helped my students achieve their learning objectives.

Students need a break and so do you. As a student, I just could not pay attention if the lesson or lecture lasted over an hour without a short break. If I was ever delivering a lecture over several hours, I’d always ask the students if they’d prefer me to power through and finish early with no breaks or have a 5-minute break every hour. I was so grateful when the students voted for breaks in between. Personally, I needed the rest. However, it was my choice to let the students decide but that doesn’t mean you have to as well. That’s up to you.

Empathy and compassion

This links back to getting into the minds of your students but more on an emotional level. Some students are going through tough times in their personal life. We’ve all been there and it’s important to factor this in when you interact with students. Of course, you won’t know this unless they tell you, although a bit of kindness and consideration can go a long way. The last thing you want is your kindness to be mistaken for weakness. You may find that on occasion you’re being taken advantage of so it’s important to set boundaries where necessary.

Getting frustrated with your students never solved anything. We’re human at the end of the day and we slip up here and there but the important thing to realise is that not everyone will understand and know what you know. Patience is a virtue. Explaining things more than once but in different ways is okay. Don’t deny the students the opportunity to further grasp your teachings. Teach them!

Communication

Lack of communication can be endemic in academia. Numerous times, I would send my tutor or supervisor a work-related email and would not receive a reply. Don’t do this. This is the biggest criticism of my time at university. You can imagine the frustration a student has when they are seeking guidance on an assignment or feedback on their work and they are met with silence. That’s the opposite of teaching.

I have been in so many lectures and lessons that I’ve lost count. However, I do remember one lecture, for all of the wrong reasons, that I attended as an undergraduate. It was a maths module and the lecturer spent the entire time with his back to the audience scribbling away on the blackboard. I spent the entire lecture just trying to copy down everything from the blackboard before it was erased and replaced with more stuff I had to note down. It was exhausting. There was no time for interaction with the lecturer. I can objectively say that, try as I might, very little learning was achieved during that occasion. What I did learn was that, as an educator, I must avoid drowning my students with information. Picture watering your garden. Too much at once can be unbeneficial.

You never stop being a student

This is a mindset I have adopted over the years. I always see myself as a student of many things including life. Chances are, you’re somebody’s student despite being a world-renowned professor. We don’t know everything about everything and so there’s someone out there that will always know more. You may be an expert in quantum mechanics but you may have interests in geopolitics, something you know relatively little about. So, you’ll likely seek out someone to teach you more about this new topic.

It’s normal to think that teachers, lecturers and professors are a fountain of knowledge. The reality is, they are not. They have questions just like everyone else. I’ve witnessed a professor, with a PhD in physics, admit to his student that he does not know the answer to a question from his field of expertise. I’ve also had an Oxford University graduate in chemistry admit to me that they don’t always understand the stuff that they teach. This was cathartic. It showed me that even the brightest have their difficulties. And so, we’ll always continue learning to strengthen our understanding of what we know. So, technically we’ll never stop being a student.

What do you think?

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Naser Al-Mufachi
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