Josh (desh) wrote,
Josh
desh

teaching

So with the promotion I got gradually over the past 6 months or so, one of my responsibilities, as of a month ago, is teaching a technical class to other folks in my department and 2 related departments. The proprietary system we all program in is really esoteric, with a bunch of strange and confusing aspects that have built up over the years. Newer features make more sense and are easier for people with programming backgrounds to understand, but they're still often complicated. Older features are just plain ridiculous. Those of us who have been here awhile have gotten used to these quirks, and were around for the creation of many of them, but the majority of folks in these 3 departments have been around for 2 years or less. So they gotta learn (and old timers may need refreshers), and classroom-style learning is an important component of that learning that was missing.

Now, I should point out that teaching kind of terrifies me. I imagine this is relatively common in the world at large, but not in my circles. For many of my friends, teaching Hebrew School or doing bar/t mitzvah tutoring is a good default part-time job to get if they need a little more money. Many of those same folks regularly give d'var torahs ("word of torah", basically a short teaching on a Jewish topic, often given during Shabbat services at places where a full-fledged sermon would be out of place) without it being an issue. They might teach 1-hour workshops or 6-hour (over 4 days) classes at learning-based Jewish retreats I go to. Not to mention the people employed full-time as teachers! I don't do any of those things; they all intimidate me a lot. Often I feel like I don't know enough to teach about anything. Often (especially when it comes to teaching kids) I know that I know enough, but I still worry about filling up the time, moving too fast, controlling the class (yes, less relevant for adults), and so on. It's a hard job, and I have a ton of respect for people who do it for a living.

Before last month, I've had 2 main teaching experiences in my life. One was the most random job I've ever had: When I was about 23-24, I had a part-time job as a "second voice" in a school that trained people to be court reporters. After the students' first semester, most of their classes consisted of practicing writing on steno machines at increasing speeds and in various different courtroom-simulated environments. Basically, different types of legal transcripts would be read to the class, while the reader stared at a stopwatch to make sure he stayed at exactly 160 (or whatever) words per minute. When the student could pass a test at a particular speed, they moved up to the next class. A class instructor could easily teach by him- or herself if it's a class on jury instructions or something like that, but a class on testimony or medical testimony or multivoice (with 4 or 5 different people in the transcript, usually objecting lawyers and such), you'd need more than one person reading. So my job was to be the witness or the judge or whatever in those classes. I was a sort of teaching assistant, except my role was completely limited to doing this careful reading aloud. And even so, I was nervous for the first few months! I had no responsibilities of lesson planning, classroom control, or anything else, but I was still nervous! Over time I loosened up a bit, and even made relevant conversation with the class during breaks in the dictation (which wasn't easy, given that I don't know steno). I still miss that job.

The other experience was the teaching class I took my senior year of high school, as an elective. In retrospect it was clearly meant as Hebrew School teaching prep, but I didn't realize that at the time. And I honestly don't know why I even took the class, aside from liking the teacher. Toward the end of the year, we had to arrange to student-teach one class somewhere. Most of us went to a Hebrew School, but I contacted the school where I went to elementary school and arranged to teach a 6th grade math class. I prepared a ton, and it was still incredibly difficult. I introduced the kids to the formula for the area of a rectangle, and then moved on to the area of a (right) triangle, all in 40 minutes. The speed seemed appropriate for me, a math guy, but in retrospect may have been WAY too fast for them. And, to make matters worse, I handed out large Hershey bars to the kids as a demonstration tool. In a 1st period class. I bet all of their 2nd and 3rd period teachers HATED me that day. Anyway, I was very nervous, I didn't make eye contact with the kids once, and I have no idea if they retained any information I taught them.

Anyway. I was really nervous for the first class at work 3 weeks ago. The class existed in a previous incarnation years ago (taught by the people who were writing the system features, not those of us who design and implement their use), and one complaint I had was that the examples were under-prepared. So I went whole-hog, spending a good day and a half preparing what I was going to say and which examples (taken from our real code rather than made-up) I was going to use. I spent a ton of time on it and I was really nervous, even though it was all material I knew very well. And even though I was only teaching for half of the 1-hour block; my plan has been to have different people teach different topics.

So it went really well. As did the 2nd class (when I again taught about half the time) and the 3rd (where I planned the lesson but didn't teach at all). I started getting less nervous.

Yesterday was the 4th class, and I didn't spend as much time preparing. I think I was still prepared enough, but I also think the class went terribly. The concept I was teaching was much more complicated than I realized, and I lost people early on. I tried to make up for it by making it more interactive, calling on people to explain the next step rather than just explaining it myself. But the same few people (most of whom have been here for years, like me) kept volunteering to answer, and none of the new people were getting it at all. This may be the nature of the material, that they need to see and try it multiple times before it sinks in, but that's not what I anticipated happening at all. We all left frustrated, I'm sure, and now I'm worried again about next time.

This stuff is hard!

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