Teaching Anecdotes [audio]

This podcast is part of an assignment for my MS schoolwork, but I decided to share it on my main blog.

It appears you have a browser that doesn’t grok the HTML5 <audio> tag. You can download the MP3 directly: 2011-02-06 Teaching Anecdotes.


Good day, all. Rick O here. In this podcast I want to share with you a story about my experiences as a teacher. For the second course in my Master’s program I have been given an assignment to build a portfolio website and do a podcast about my previous teaching experiences. I’ve already got the website, so here’s the podcast. But enough intro, Rick, get to the good stuff.

It turns out that I don’t remember too many of my really great teaching experiences. I know I’ve had successes, but they don’t stand out as much as the total failures. That probably says something crucial about my personality, but there you go. So instead of a story of success, I’m going to give stories of failure, but with an underlying theme that has led to my success as a teacher.

Anecdote the first: I was in middle school, in a pre-Algebra class. This was the first time in my life I was given homework that I actually had to take home and do, instead of just finishing it while the teacher was talking in class. I don’t remember what the exact topic was, but at one point I was frustrated by something and called my mom over to help me. We looked at it, and tried a few dead-ends. We both got increasingly frustrated, and voices were raised, until she finally exclaimed “I can’t help you with this!” and went off to do something else.

I didn’t understand it at the time, but I had hit the limits of what my mom remembered about math. My mom’s a smart gal, but math isn’t her strong point, and it had been a decade or more since she’d had a serious math class. This was my first exposure to the idea that maybe adults didn’t know everything about everything nor do they have perfect recall.

Fast forward a few years to high school. My then-girlfriend-now-wife was taking a statistics class. She, too, was not a mathlete like I was. She asked me for help one night, and try as I might I couldn’t get her to see the connections in the math that I could. I completely failed as a teacher, and neither of us has forgotten how horrific that failure was. Again, I didn’t see it at the time, but this was my first indicator that maybe everyone didn’t learn the same way.

It took a while until she was willing to ask for my help again, but a few years later she was in an Intro to Programming class that used Pascal as the language of choice. This should have been a red flag for me—I had been about 8 years old when I devoured my first book on Pascal, even though I wouldn’t have access to a Pascal compiler for another 5 years. Yeah, I was one of those kids. Anyway, the lesson went about as well as could be expected—epic fail—and we made a tacit agreement that I would never again try to help her with her homework. The lesson here? It’s harder to teach things you are passionate about, because your students may not have that passion and it’ll break your heart to see how much they don’t care.

And now back to the present. I’ve been teaching for about a year and a half now. I’ve taken these failures to heart, and used them to make myself a better teacher. I don’t expect my students to have perfect recall, nor to remember the minutiae that is accumulated over years of constant exposure to a subject. I try to present my course material in as many formats as I can generate — pages of long form text, bulleted slides, screencasts, interactive examples, real-world examples, et cetera — because everyone will absorb it differently. And I know that my students probably won’t love what I am teaching. They may even hate it. But that’s okay, because I am not what I teach. I’m just the messenger.