by Sudip Paul
I’d like to talk about my first teaching experience. It was in the Fall of 2010 – I had to teach integral calculus. I had taught before but it was always 2-3 students at a time. I had no experience of classroom teaching. So I was more than a little worried. My university had a pretty extensive TA training program which ran for an entire week. I attended all the workshops religiously, took notes, read and reread the TA manual. Still I found myself ill-prepared. With hindsight, my lack of confidence was pretty natural but at that point I was super-scared to face my students.
Anyway, the appointed hour came and I had no choice but to go on. I introduced myself, asked each one of them to do a brief introduction and got down to business. Fortunately it was a worksheet session and so I didn’t have to do much. The students were well prepared – most of them had done AP calculus. The first day was a success.
As the quarter went by I found the work more and more easygoing. All I had to do was go to the class and do a bunch of integrals on the board. So I was lax and stopped preparing the homework problems beforehand. “After all, I don’t need to prepare for freshman integration problems” – how wrong I was!
One day we were doing surfaces of revolution. I used to do them in a different way than it was taught in the text. The textbook is very formal – they set up the problem nicely and then solve it by following a specific algorithm. I tried to do the first problem but it wasn’t very easy – I had to step back and think for five minutes before the solution came to me. To the credit of my students no one showed any sign of impatience in the meantime.
I was halfway through writing and explaining my solution when someone politely asked for a clarification. Then it hit me – they are not following anything because I was doing this problem in a completely different method. I tried to make them understand but it was hopeless. What I was doing didn’t have any relation with the stuff they have seen in the professor’s lecture or in the text. So I asked them just to copy it down for now and promised to come up with a better solution next time. I was feeling doubly uncomfortable because it was a day of observation by the TA mentor.
Other than that I didn’t have much trouble with my class. It was a refuge for me – whenever I was stuck with differential geometry or algebra, I would think about the class I was teaching. It was very comforting to know that there is at least one class which I could ace.
In the class I tried to give some additional resources on advanced materials, especially to students who would stay after the class or come to my office hours. One of them couldn’t stop thanking me for telling her about the MIT Opencourseware!
My evaluations were mixed. Two major complaints were about my accent and my handwriting on the board. I am not a native speaker of English and four months is too little time to get my accent adjusted. So I knew it would create problems with at least some of the students.
I learned a lot about teaching after this course. In my view, teaching is like a performing art. No amount of reading or attending workshops will prepare you for the challenge. You only get better with practice.
For all my inexperience, I hope I made at least a small contribution to the students’ learning.