Teaching 101 – Tutor Starter Pack…

…by Bérengère / from France / PhD Psychiatry / 5th Year

“You can’t begin to imagine all the stuff that I’ve learned while teaching.” — Future guest-writer Catherine.

I used to think that learning and teaching were like walking and running. So while you don’t run before you can walk without losing your balance every 3 steps, you also don’t teach before you’ve learned it all.

However, given how Imposter Syndrome goes, if you follow that then boy, you’ll never teach! Which is a real shame because god knows there’s people out there who need you to share your knowledge. (Please see my previous post “Adventures of an Imposter” to help tell those negative feelings to shove off!)

For now, let’s consider a different approach.

You don’t need to know everything before you can start teaching

Don’t get me wrong, don’t start explaining things you don’t know anything about to people who know more than you. You know…don’t be an ass. What I mean is, if you wait until you know all the mysteries of Genetics before you feel confident enough to tutor for a Biology 101 course, then you’ll never tutor. And this is a real waste because no one will ever know all the mysteries of Genetics so why let that stop you! As a PhD student, you have to start somewhere with your teaching experience, and I reckon most tutors feel extremely unprepared for the job on their first day (and their second day, and third day …), and are pretty unanimously convinced they don’t know enough.

I began “teaching” stuff last year, when I started my PhD. To take some baby steps, first, giving one-on-one French lessons. Even if I tried to convince myself, “come on girl, you know French, it’s your mother tongue! There’s no way a beginner would ask you a question you don’t know the answer to!”, for my first few lessons I was petrified. Turns out I knew my mother tongue well enough to share it with people eager to learn it.

Trust your ability to learn stuff

You’ve made it this far, so clearly you can learn information. It is possible that a course you will tutor in will at some point cover something you haven’t actually studied. It’s fine, et je dirais même plus, it’s great! You’ll read the materials, you’ll spend a wee bit more time preparing this tutorial, and maybe you’ll have to ask a couple of questions to the lecturer or a colleague, but you’ll be all set! Don’t be afraid to ask for help when in need, and see it as a great opportunity for you to learn more about the field.

This year, my Biology BSc, Neurobiology MSc, and I officially joined the teaching staff of the University, to tutor in, hold on to your hat, Psychology and Linguistics courses. Before then, my knowledge of Psychology only focused on what I had read for my PhD (on social cognition), and my knowledge of Linguistics stopped at my secondary school grammar program. Grammar is indeed taught very differently in France, but still. It took me some time but I learned so much about Psychology and Linguistics! Probably very few graduates know about both neural induction mechanisms and the Equivalence Constraint hypothesis, but I’m one of them. I’m still not entirely sure what a clitic pronoun is though.

There’s only one way to learn how to teach: teach

Your main worry might be that, even though you know your topic like the back of your hand, you just don’t know how to…well…teach, and explain, and create an actual content that makes sense. You’re right to be worried about that, especially because most Universities don’t teach you about teaching before your first tutorial. The good news is, it doesn’t actually matter. There’s only one way to learn how to teach: teach. Jump in there and do it! With each tutorial you will learn a bit more about what it is to teach. And if you continue teaching, then in 10 years you’ll still be learning, and you’ll probably be thinking “Bordel, everything I did in my first years was crap! Poor students …”

(A little secret between us: before my first tutorial I phoned my Mum, a teacher, to ask her for advice on how to manage students. As it turns out, what works for 13-years-old also works for 20-years-old. Who would have guessed? Muchas gracias Maman.)

After 2 semesters, here is what I’ve learned:

  • Think about a teacher you really liked. Try and do the same as s/he did.
  • Think about a teacher you really disliked. Try NOT to do the same as s/he did.
  • Be honest with your students. If someone has a question you don’t know the answer to, tell the student you don’t know, but you’ll look it up, and so must s/he, and you’ll compare your findings the following week. Don’t try and bullshit your way out of it.
  • If you tell your students you’ll do something, do it. After all, that’s what you are expecting from them.

And all the rest

Let’s be honest, teaching teaches you so much more than just “information about that field” and “how to teach”. Organisational skills? CHECK. Communication skills? CHECK. Networking? CHECK. Dealing with responsibilities? CHECK. Interestingly enough, I feel like experiencing the other side of the game also made me a better student. (My supervisors might not agree with this last bit.)

You and your students on their last day (giphy.com)

What you really need

Now that I’ve told you all about what you don’t need to start tutoring, here is what I think you do need:

  • Be aware of the related workload and responsibilities. They are heavy but manageable. Don’t go in it à moitié, only doing the bare minimum, or it will be an unpleasant experience for everybody.
  • Be ready to learn all these new things.
  • Be eager to share what you’ve learned, your passion for the field, your hard-won higher-education survival skills.

What you need to start teaching is some basic knowledge, and overly infectious enthusiasm.

Your students will unknowingly teach you the rest.

– Bérengère


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