The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Ten important things I learned about teaching (Part II)

Continued from last week, here is the rest of my “top ten” list of lessons learned during my first teaching experience.

6. For goodness’ sake, be yourself.

One bit of advice I got before starting this class was that I should dress up – you know, wear a pantsuit or something – to establish an air of authority. I was told that I should embody a stern/serious demeanor to garner respect, especially because I am female and young.


Even if my department was not already quite casual (I love ecologists and their jeans and plaid and polar fleece), I am very much a jeans and t-shirts kind of person. I am also hopelessly goofy, unashamedly nerdy, and definitely inclined to get overly-hand-wavingly excited about certain topics.  I am not an authoritative/dictatorial person. I like to converse, give-and-take, laugh, establish an environment of mutual respect.

Trying to disguise myself as anything other than exactly who I am would have made me incredibly uncomfortable and fidgety and would have been immediately picked out by students as a sham – they are not stupid and can spot a fake in a second. I suspect it would have backfired quickly and badly.

Instead, I was happy and felt at ease. I just can’t see the sense in creating additional stress by trying to maintain a false persona in an already stressful situation.  (Plus, more than a few students expressed their appreciation for my excellent collection of nerdy nature/science-themed graphic Ts, so there :P)

7.  Be OK with quality vs. quantity.

Confession time: I didn’t cover every single topic I set out to cover at the beginning of the term.  But I am 100% completely happy with this, because what we DID cover was done thoughtfully, thoroughly, and included opportunities for students to really immerse themselves and be engaged with the material in an active and meaningful way. If I’d tried to cram everything in, we would have missed out on so, so much.  Which brings me to:

8. The absolute best classes were the ones where I did the least amount of talking.

Even though I was working with a larger group of students (~90) we often did small group discussions or activities centered around word problems, news articles or journal papers that showed real-world applications of the theories or models we’d been working on.

Discussions and group work are fantastic ways to break up a lecture, wake people up and get them directly engaged in the material. Working in small groups or pairs enhances participation and provides opportunities for interaction for even the most introverted (and least likely to speak up in class) students. The buzz in the room during these short active sessions is fantastic, and it provides a neat chance for the instructor to go around the room, listen in and chat with students.

Very often I’d be completely blown away by the breadth of the students’ experiences, knowledge and insights and would find the class immersed in truly magical moments during which real dialogue, critical thinking and learning were taking place.  In these moments my role became that of a facilitator or mediator – ensuring that everyone could hear what was being said, occasionally paraphrasing complicated ideas to echo them in simpler or more concrete terms, posing follow-up questions, or playing devil’s advocate to challenge students to justify their opinions or assertions.

Did these unexpectedly long conversations take away from some of the stuff I’d planned on talking about that day? Sometimes, yes; I was often able to incorporate most of the main points I wanted to cover into the discussion, but not always. Was it worth skipping a few minor details for the sake of these dialogues? Unequivocally, yes.

9. Sometimes you will screw up. Admit it, fix it, and move forward.

One day, I realized I’d screwed something up. Something pretty important, actually, that would be revisited and built upon in the coming weeks. I went through various stages: denial (no way!), horror (OMG, way!), embarrassment (OMGGGGGGG).

I got help, corrected my notes, and then the next class I put on my big girl pants and said, “I screwed up. Here’s what I told you – it was wrong. I’m sorry. We need to fix this before we move ahead, so here’s the correct information.”

And you know what? The universe didn’t end, no one made me feel bad, and we moved on to new things without a hitch.

10. Teaching is bloody hard, but:

“This is my favorite class I’ve ever taken.”

“It has been a blessing to have you as a teacher.”

“I never thought a math class could be fun.”

“Thank you.”

It’s so worth it.

9 responses to “Ten important things I learned about teaching (Part II)

  1. Mike Manzella April 30, 2014 at 5:31 PM

    Reblogged this on Michael Manzella – Teacher in Training and commented:
    Continued from the last one. I couldn’t have said it better. #6 is far too true for me – I get 10x more nervous when I’m expected to be presenting as someone I’m not (as in every scientific presentation).

  2. Mike Manzella April 30, 2014 at 5:33 PM

    #6 is far too true – I hate presenting or lecturing as someone I’m not.

    Well done on this post (and Part I of course), I’ve dispersed it to all my teaching friends and colleagues!

  3. BioDataSci May 1, 2014 at 2:04 PM

    I enjoyed reading. Thanks!

  4. George Sims May 17, 2014 at 10:15 AM

    It would be a joy, honor and privilege to be able to take your class.

  5. Sheldon April 27, 2015 at 11:53 AM

    Question: what happens to caterpillar’s stinger mechanism during metamorphosis to butterfly? does absorbed venom from caterpillar metamorphosis affect butterfly?

    • TGIQ March 30, 2017 at 11:48 AM

      I’m not familiar to caterpillars that have stingers – stingers and venom are pretty much all found in the Hymenoptera, the order of insects that includes bees, wasps and ants! Now, some caterpillars do have different chemical toxins or poisons in their bodies (often advertised with bright colours) and these can certainly carry over into the adult butterfly and offer them protection as well 🙂

  6. Randy B September 24, 2015 at 6:00 PM

    Could not be more true ” Sometimes you will screw up. Admit it, fix it, and move forward”

  7. Katie (Nature ID) April 14, 2016 at 12:13 PM

    For some reason this morning, I was thinking of you and missing your blog posts. Sending you the best of wishes. I hope you are well!

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