Learning to Teach in Academia
Recently, I have been reflecting back on my time as a teaching assistant, trying to understand what changed? Why do I like teaching now? I think for me it was exposure to teaching that helped me build my confidence. Part of my studentship for my MSc was teaching assistantship, so I had no choice, but to teach. I found the first-year classes hard to manage, maybe because of the number of students? The 3rd and 4th year classes were a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed interacting with the students.
I began teaching when I was a first year MSc student. At that point, I had no confidence and felt like I knew nothing. I think how I felt was apparent to the students when I ran tutorials. What I did enjoy about teaching was marking, providing feedback, and one on one student interactions in the lab.
After I completed my MSc in Neuroscience, I continued to teach during my PhD, even though it was not required for my studentship. The extra money was nice, and so was the exposure to teaching. I stumbled again when I ran tutorials, but then I had an opportunity to teach a small introductory lab section and loved every minute of it. The students were great! I taught the same course for 2 years. During my postdoctorate in Germany, I designed and taught a course for graduate students. When I returned to Canada, I also designed and taught courses during my time at Carleton University. I taught retired students through the Learning and Retirement program. This was really interesting, since I was the youngest person in the room and was their instructor, but I think it helped me with building my confidence and made me more assertive with students, as well as being clearer when I communicated. The process of teaching an undergraduate class taught me the importance of servicing the student.
During the 2017-18 academic year I taught a brand-new course in the Department of Neuroscience. The course was an honors class but was targeted towards students who did not want to go to graduate school. The focus was on communicating scientific knowledge to a non-scientist audience. It was an 8-month long course and I worked with another instructor to design the course, we planned out several assignments over the course of the year. The course was a bit outside my expertise, but I was excited to teach it. I conducted a mid-year anonymous evaluation with students and tried to address the concerns that were brought up by the students. At the end of the year, my teaching evaluations were bad, it was a bit daunting! I spoke with the department chair and took the feedback and applied it when I taught the same course the following year (2018-19). I conducted a mid-year evaluation, but this time I went through the comments with students and listed out how I was trying to accommodate their feedback into the remaining months of the year. My teaching evaluations scores increased significantly. This experience was an important lesson in remaining flexible when teaching. Also getting feedback from people that have taught in the same setting is priceless.
In July 2019, I started as an Assistant Professor, I learned a lot from teaching in a large lecture setting. The students were extremely motivated and pushed me from the first lecture, all in good ways. I tried some new things in terms of incorporating active learning into my lectures as well as information presentation. I am planning to incorporate the new knowledge into the course next year.
Throughout my career, I have participated in some sort of training to help me become a better instructor. In graduate school I participated in a day long teaching course. When I was in my postdoctorate I took a weekly course for a semester that went through all the nuts and bolts of teaching. During this course I had the opportunity to give a lecture that was video recorded. Other participants and the course instructor provided me feedback, as well as I was able to see myself when I lecture and my different mannerisms, it was entertaining and embarrassing all at once.
As an instructor I thought it was important to participate in training, read books, and consult teaching centers on campus. During the end of my PhD I began to put together a teaching portfolio including my student evaluations, reference letters from both students and instructors I worked with. This was helpful when I was in my postdoctorate applying for instructor positions. It also helped when I was putting my teaching portfolio together for faculty position.
I think teaching is a process, you try something and see if it works. Exposure to teaching has helped me get where I am now, somewhat comfortable lecturing to a classroom of +150 graduate students. Despite the challenges, I think teaching is one of best parts of my job as an academic. Science still continues to fascinate me, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to share it with others.
“Those who can do, also teach”
-Joshua Schimel, author of Writing Science