What I think about when I think about teaching
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What I think about when I think about teaching

Terry D. Johnson

UC Berkeley Bioengineering


1. They aren’t you.

A large part of your job is diagnosis. Every complex concept requires a grasp of many prerequisite concepts, which you’re already so comfortable with that it’s easy to pretend that everyone else is, too. You’re going to need to identify which of these concepts is holding the student back.

2. They won’t be you at the end of the class.

You’ll want them to leave your course knowing everything that you know about the subject. They won’t, and that’s ok. It took you years to develop your intuition and sophistication, and they’ll need the same.

3. You won’t be present for most of your triumphs.

Much of what we do is plant seeds. In a future class, or after they’ve graduated, they’ll be working on a problem and something you said will suddenly come into focus. You paved the way for that, but you won’t be there to see it.

4. You’re not just teaching a subject; you’re teaching a discipline.

We are imparting no eldritch mysteries; everything that we teach is available in a library or online. Our job is not merely to teach it, but to collect it in such a way that it prepares the student to accomplish something. Courses should fit comfortably into a curriculum.

5. They deserve to be challenged, but not punished.

You’re a coach. Students who train under you should go to the next team playing the game at a higher level. Push them outside of their comfort zone, but not so far from it that, without points of reference, they get lost.

6. Teach to the student who’ll rarely look at this material again and to the student who’ll be studying it for the rest of his or her life.

Not everyone is going to graduate school to specialize in the subject of your course.

7. Be shameless.

I am an enthusiastic lecturer, bordering on goofy. I gesticulate wildly and use my body as a prop. I will happily describe the consequences of a bioengineering failure in gory, Lovecraftian detail. I will play on a class’ sympathies for the hypothetical recipients of a drug or medical device. If it’s illustrative and gets their attention, go for it. Dignity is overrated; shut up and dance.

8. Don’t admit being wrong. Rejoice in it.

You can coast pretty far on your authority as a teacher. Don’t. Instead, demonstrate with grace that error is part of learning and that they shouldn’t fear failure. That attitude will serve them as well or better as anything on your syllabus.

9. Set boundaries.

They won’t graduate as professionals if we don’t lead by example and treat them accordingly.

10. Life happens, and working around it is part of the job.

If life is getting in the way of a student’s learning, work with them. Few people go four consecutive years without the world dealing them a firm kick in the backside - if it happens to someone in your class, don’t make things worse by insisting that their real life ends where the class begins.