On Teaching: What Changes And What Stays The Same

While I definitely wouldn't consider myself a seasoned teacher, I've been a TA at CMU for almost 4 years, so I think I'm allowed to say I've learned a thing or two. I can also say, with confidence this time, that being a teacher has taught me more about computer science than I could ever learn as a student. Constantly explaining and reiterating concepts, answering pointed questions on finer details, and inventing questions to challenge students on particular topics has been a huge help in solidifying my own understanding of course material that I had thought I already knew.

Today, interacting with students feels a lot like a competition. Slipping up on an explanation or presenting material in a confusing, mundane, or otherwise uninteresting way can cause them to pick up their phone or glance at their laptop, and the next time they look up again, they're likely to be completely lost. This is bad for the student, because they don't have an understanding of the material, and it's bad for the teachers, because the student can show up in office hours or send an email to ask a question that's already been answered. Teachers need to deliver material in such a way that the student is engaged enough to want to ingest it, to be interested in it, and to participate in class when a question is asked.

This has become all the more apparent this semester, after I decided to enroll in a class called Tutoring for Community Outreach for my French major. The class consists of a once-a-week meeting with the professor and bidaily site visits to Taylor Allderdice High School, a local public school in Pittsburgh. I was assigned to three French I classes in the "standard track," or "PSP". What I quickly learned was that the standard vs. honors tracks separate the children who actually want to learn from children who don't or have difficulty doing so; "standard" and "honors" in this setting are clear euphemisms for "substandard" and "standard."

What changed when I went from teaching college recitations on computer systems to helping teach in the high school French classroom? Well, a lot. Students openly disrespecting teachers, climbing on furniture, throwing objects at each other... there was even a kid in one of my classes who got expelled for setting another student's hair on fire. For about half of them, the motivation to learn is all but nonexistent; when these kids walk in, they have earphones in from the tardy bell to the end of class, constantly staring at their little screens. No amount of "please put your phones away" and "pay attention" will do any good.

While the competition for attention may have gotten harder, it's still there, and I've been slowly learning how to step up my game. While my recitation students are mostly content to sit and watch me speak while wildly gesticulating, occasionally interrupting with a question, these students need something more. It's practically a perfect storm -- adolescent students learning French I in a high school classroom at 8 in the morning behave quite differently from college students learning about computer science at 1:30 in the afternoon. Whether it's group exercises, pictionary, powerpoint presentations with ridiculous GIFs, charades, or Simon Says, it's clear that this challenge that was once secondary to the course material is now front and center, rearing its ugly head. Coming up with new ways to challenge and engage these students is exhausting work, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for their teachers.

Still, this has been an incredible learning experience for me and I'm thrilled that I was able to participate while also keeping my recitation. Learning how to work with the toughest students and finding new ways to engage them has definitely improved my TA skills, and I try to bring these new experiences with me when I get back to my recitation and office hours. I don't think I would ever be able to go through what these teachers do every single day and still want to get up in the morning, ready for more. It's always funny to go from helping teach a class with 30 shouting kids to sitting in a lecture hall with 200 college students, peacefully watching the professor describe and mark up algorithms on a chalkboard wider than the classroom I was just in.

Has teaching high school French I given me any additional insight to the French language? Do I have a better grasp of the passé composé, or when to use the infinitive in a sentence? Probably not. But I definitely understand now more than ever why engaging, challenging, and relating to students is the most effective way of motivating them to learn. Standing up and talking is better than nothing, but unless students can relate to the material personally (whether it be to find a job, talk to a friend, or impress somebody), they won't have any way of internalizing the information you're trying to offer them.

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