On teaching


A month or so ago, I helped teach a three-day introductory Python course to client’s employees who were directly involved in, or adjacent to, credit modelling. Of the 8 or so people who attended, everyone was interested in learning Python. What made this a fun course to teach is that almost no one had previous experience with the language, only SAS. It was a challenge for me – teaching 8+ hours per day, three days in a row, is hard work. Anyway, I remember lying on the couch after the final day with a handful of takeaways from the experience, which I noted down and have shared here.

Some conclusions, in no particular order:

I’m not sure I want to do this full time. The brilliant students, who are rewarding to work with and fun to teach, they don’t really need my help. They’re the kinds of students that will work hard and figure things out by themselves if left alone. In contrast, the “bad" Usually students who don’t listen (since they’re often on their phones or answering emails), and then interrupt in the middle of explanations to try and “cut-to-the-chase” without letting the pedagogical process run its natural course. These are the kinds of people who boastfully listen to conference talks at 3x speed while mindlessly scrolling through social media at the same time. They’re not here to learn something new, they’re here to tick a box. students absorb most of the available time, and feel like the least rewarding to teach.

It’s frustrating when people choose to not engage, even if you’re a good teacher with a lot to share and show and tell. Some people just don’t understand how tremendously lucky they are I, of course, have no control over this. Doesn’t make it any less sad.. I consider this a small tragedy.

It’s frustrating to co-lecture with someone who you feel teaches poorly Maybe a difference in style, but I think this is stretching it., or who isn’t adequately prepared. A lot of my frustration wasn’t from the students, but from the person lecturing with me not being prepared, not being able to explain clearly, not speaking clearly, stumbling, etc. This person is far more of an expert in the subject than I am, but it was clear that not enough thought was put into communicating this knowledge. In future, I don’t want to work someone who doesn’t take things as seriously as I do – I want people who aspire to inspire. Maybe the students don’t notice because they’re so used to poor teachers who don’t put in effort, but it made this experience significantly less enjoyable for me.

This is doubly true when your co-lecturer is slow to use the tool they’re supposed to be teaching. C’mon man – you must learn to type properly when you’re going to teach programming. You add so much friction and overhead that gets in the way of the teaching process by not being proficient or prepared with your set of basic skills.

However, co-lecturing can be rewarding. When it works, you can riff off each other’s differing perspectives, and expose students to multiple view points at the same time. It’s also nice to be able to take the occasional break, especially during long days. However, this is only true if both lecturers are prepared. Otherwise, frustratingly, core concepts are stumbled over or not explained because no prior preparation took place to sufficiently think about how best to teach and explain an idea or concept.

When preparing course material, do less rather than more. Overloading the course forces you to invariably cut things out as the course progresses, since content is never covered in the allocated time. Teaching isn’t a linear process: there are many divergences, all of them valuable to build understanding, and so you will inevitably never be able to follow your strict schedule. Keep cut content available as an “extra”, if you really want to.

Full day courses are too long. Students can’t maintain concentration for 8 hours, and neither can I. If you feel exhausted come day’s end, I think you’ve done too much. Teaching is hard work, and so is learning. There’s a dramatic drop in quality towards the end of the day. I don’t think this is something that can be mitigated with short breaks every 45-60 minutesWhen you’re done, you’re done. There’s an unmistakable drop-off in attention retention when a threshold is crossed..

It was a great idea to do exercises immediately after introducing a concept. It keeps students engaged, gives lecturers a short break to prepare and rest, allows for questions, and lets students immediately reinforce their understanding. After some time of letting them try for themselves, work through the examples slowly with them. Often you’ll discover they’ve misunderstood something, and you get to interactively correct them and explain where their understanding diverged from the material. This leads to many great questions and interaction, which is rewarding for both people like me (who love teaching) and for the students.

So, would I go through the process again? If I can learn from these lessons, and put those lessons to practice, I’d love to.

Till next time.