In which I present a completely unbiased view of university tutoring…

As a post-grad student, you’re constantly being thrown opportunities to delve into the world of academia. Depending on your subject, this can come in a number of different shapes and sizes from leading class discussions in tutorials to lecturing. For the past five years, I’ve been a lab demonstrator for my university’s Chemistry department which essentially means I’m in charge of making sure none of my students seriously injure themselves in a freak chemical spill/fire/glassware explosion.

And I’m responsible for teaching them some things as well…

About a week ago, I sent around a few questions to some of my friends, most of whom teach with me in the undergraduate Chemistry labs but there were a few Maths and environmental science lab tutors. Some have been teaching for 13 years, others only 2 but all of us got into it while completing some sort of post-graduate degree. And while I’ve tried to be balanced and as journalistic as a non-journalist can be, this will undoubtedly be biased given that the people who very kindly gave up their time to answer my questions did so out of a love of what they do. I’m sure there are people out there that find that teaching is the absolute bane of their existence… but they’re completely mental.

How’s that for unbiased?

How and why did you get into teaching?

The take home message for those interested in picking up a few shifts as a tutor is ask. Most lecturers won’t know you’re interested or capable unless you let them know. At some universities, demonstrating is a completely optional thing but sometimes it’s highly recommended as part of a higher degree program. This doesn’t always happen though so ask around and see what happens.

As for the “why”, well the overwhelming majority said it was because of money. Let’s face it, in Australia being a student is tough, particularly for those with no scholarships. If you’re anything like me, you’ll get into it because of the extra little bit to pay the bills and then be pleasantly surprised by how fun it is.

What’s your favourite thing?

“Watching a student’s face when they finally link… theory to practical experiments”

“Actually getting through to students so they finally understand something.”

“Seeing the light bulb moment…”

“The light bulb moment…” 

Ah, the light bulb moment. It’s my favourite thing about teaching as well. I once had a group crowded around me and a whiteboard at the front of a lab class while I explained how to balance Redox equations. The collective “Joh! That actually made sense!” kept me going for weeks.

One of my friends also said this:

“Getting to meet and getting to know the students. It’s amazing how much fun you, and they, can have with just a bit of effort.”

So true. One of my first year students made me a snowman out of the ice bucket once. Hilarious. While there is the occasional shocker of a student, the majority of undergrads actually want to be there. It makes a huge difference in enjoyment levels.

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Least favourite thing?

“Is this going to be on the exam?”

“Unprepared students.”

“Those who don’t listen.”

“…students who put in no effort…”

Essentially, do the work that’s expected of you and the lab/class will be ten thousand times better and worth the money you’re spending on the courses in the first place.

“Seeing promising students fail, even when they slog their guts out.”

There are two things I have absolutely zero patience for; slow-moving pedestrians taking up the whole path and students who don’t put any effort into their work and expect to be spoon-fed. It’s the ones who want to be there and are clearly trying that make me want to stay behind for an extra half hour to help.

I’m an undergrad in one of your classes – what are three things I can do to keep you from repeatedly hitting your head against the desk?

(This is for the undergrads or soon-to-be undergrads that might be reading…)

1. Come prepared to class.

Usually there’s some sort of exercise, tutorial or reading material that you should go over. Our teaching methods and classes tend to run on the assumption that you’ve at least attempted them. One of my friends said in response to this question:

“Come prepared. If you’ve been asked to do prelab or some preparative pre-reading then do it. If you’re not entirely sure, have a crack so I can give you feedback. Help me to help you.”

2. Get involved in the class you’re in.

The best way to learn is to ask questions and as an added bonus for you, it’s our job to answer them. But just make sure you’ve done step 1 so you’re not asking questions that were answered in the material you were given.

3. Listen.

If the tutor is out the front talking, usually it’s for a good reason. For the Chemistry classes I’ve taught it’s vital to listen to the correct way to handle the glassware we’re using (for reasons that will become evident in a minute).

“Pay attention to instruction. I don’t say things because I like the sound of my own voice.”

What’s the word/phrase you find yourself saying A LOT?

Most of the Chemistry tutors responded to this question with two words; “SAFETY GLASSES!”. But this was my favourite answer:

“Student: I don’t know how to do this. Me: Did you read your prac book? Student: No. Me: Well how about you read it first then ask me again if you still don’t understand. (Repeatedly hits head on desk)”

Truthful.

Source: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=974
Source: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=974

What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened in one of your classes/labs?

Talk to any teacher and they will always have one or two stories they tell repeatedly because they’re either hilarious, horrifying or a mixture of the two. Answers here ranged from the inappropriate use of an integral sign to a student picking up a poisonous Cone Shell on a field trip (“Cone Shells= coma inducing fits of joy”). One demonstrator said they once had a student snap a glass pipette and scrunch it into her hand (“Blood went everywhere”).

The story I tend to find myself telling repeatedly happened in one of my first year labs. There was a leaky gas pipe attached to one of the Bunsen burners which meant that said Bunsen burner caught fire. The other demonstrator on the lab dove into action and pulled the gas pipe off the burner and turned the gas off but it was too late. I turned around to see her holding a piece of rubber tube with flames pouring out of the end of it. Fortunately the tutor next door chose that moment to walk into our lab as I was running for the emergency stop button and hit it before I could get there. In answer to this question he said:

“Nothing too crazy (happened in) my lab but wandering next door to see the gas tap on fire was a highlight!”

Glad to know we made an impression.

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Biggest thing you’ve learnt as a teacher?

Don’t be scared.

“Admit when you’re wrong… it makes you look human.”

Your students will respect you much more if you’re ok with saying “no wait – I made a mistake” than if you try to make things up.

Remembering what it was like being a student is vital. It’s a shock to the system suddenly finding yourself in an environment where you’re expected to do things for yourself. Uni can be a scary place for students at first.

“A lack of empathy for what it’s like to be a first-time learner makes for the worst teachers/demonstrators.”

“We were once wide-eyed, scared, first year undergrads. Cut them some slack when they ask an obvious question or don’t quite understand something.”

For me, teaching is possibly the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. It can, at times, be painful, hilarious, frustrating, joyful, difficult and wonderful. That moment when a student remembers some way you found to explain a concept, gives you good feedback, tells you that your classes are heaps of fun or smiles at you in the corridor years after you’ve taught them just makes teaching awesome.

But I’ll give the last word to one of my friends:

“I enjoyed demonstrating so much I decided to become a teacher full time. We have an amazing job and responsibility and we shouldn’t take it lightly.” 

Yep.