Learning to Teach

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I remember being a TA for ARCH302, Architecture and Human Relations. It was my second year of grad school, and I got to give three or four of the semester’s lectures. And because I was still pretty new to the field, and because I didn’t trust either my knowledge or my speaking skill, I spent three weeks writing each one, and then read it. It was the equivalent of playing from your sheet music on the stand.

Now, for a huge lecture, I’m comfortable spending a day writing a few pages of notes to keep me on track, and to remind myself of key phrasing. I’ve done a 90-minute talk to six hundred people, glancing at my notes every forty seconds or so to make sure I wasn’t skipping something important, and gotten rave reviews. I couldn’t have done that in 1992, but it was comfortable and familiar by 2013.

I’m comfortable leading a seminar, walking in with nothing but the book we’ve all read and helping a dozen people find new things they’d overlooked. Helping a student examine why she thinks some passage mattered. Helping a student make a connection between this book and the article they read two weeks back.

Twenty years of practice has to be good for something. But I apologize for some of the sessions I practiced on along that path.

It’s not talked about much, but teaching has a lot of parallels with musical performance, one of which is that you have to learn it. And there’s no practice sessions, no private tutors, no high school band where you get to be awful on the way to being better. You learn through public performance, by giving the teaching equivalent of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” with all the missed notes and poor timing of any fourth grade trombonist.

College families don’t really know this, either. They don’t realize that some of the courses their golden child will take will be taught by the teaching equivalent of Evelyn Glennie, and others will be taught by the teaching equivalent of the kid down the block who just got a guitar and an amp for his thirteenth birthday.

For those of you learning to teach, be prepared to do it poorly for a while. If you come with good intentions, your students themselves will help you find the boundaries, will show you what worked so that you can recover from what didn’t.

For those of you experiencing a bad teacher, please remember that it may not be his fault. Nobody’s taught him how to do this. He may be picking up his first piece of sheet music and stumbling his way through his first recital. If you come with good intentions, it’ll help him figure some things out and be better in November than he was in August.