Over the past few months, I’ve started getting involved in teaching a web development course to beginners. Had I stayed in Melbourne, I would have taken the web development teaching assistant role I was offered by one of the coding schools. In the end, the same company gave me a chance to do some casual part-time teaching in Sydney. Lucky for me, I’ve been able to get the best of both worlds. On most days that I’m in class, I’m the teaching assistant for the part-time web app course and occasionally I teach the weekend workshop for beginners. Starting next quarter, it looks like I will be leading one of the part-time courses.
It’s been a fun experience, but not without its challenges. I’ve learned a lot about presenting information, engaging students and encouraging a good learning environment. Every teacher has their own style and like most things, I’m constantly learning how to improve my craft. It’s one thing to explain something to another developer who has some common background, and a completely different game to explain topics to students who are trying to code for the first time.
My philosophy on teaching code is simple: promote thought through questions and always get students to move towards solving incremental problems. The key is moving towards a solution. It doesn’t even have to be the best solution or even the right solution. As a teaching assistant, I’m constantly moving around debugging people’s problems. It’s easy to give answers and given the time constraints, sometimes I do have to debug and move on fairly quickly. However, most of the time, I try to get students thinking about how to fix their own problems or what to do next. It’s very important to teach the skill of how to learn.
If they’re totally stuck, I give them a hint and proceed a step or two before asking another question. I try to spoon feed them towards an answer, (sometimes almost all the way) but not directly on the answer.
My other teaching philosophies include the usage of collaborative tones and prompting for feedback. When I’m working 1 on 1 with a student, I often use words such as maybe and perhaps. It gives a suggestive tone without displaying authority or superiority over the student. I also try to use we and let’s frequently, especially when I’m asking questions or have time to dissect the problem more. For example, instead of saying, “You should check out the index file”, I would say, “Let’s check out the index file”, which gives students the assurance that you’re working with them.
At regular intervals, it’s a good idea to ask if they’re still following along. I tend to ask, “Does that make sense?”. I’m sure there are times that students have said yes when they don’t actually understand what I’m saying. Nonetheless, even if they lie and say yes, pausing momentarily gives them a chance to ask for further clarification.
Pacing and clarity is probably the two toughest aspects of teaching new students. In the beginning, I’ve made mistakes with using too much lingo (usually not necessary), or assuming that they remember a previous lesson or concept. Concepts need to be repeated multiple times before students begin to remember them, so it’s always important not to assume knowledge from the last class. Otherwise, your students may get lost and this can quickly lead to bad pacing. For major concepts, I find it’s best to introduce the same ideas in multiple places throughout the class. It’s perfectly okay to keep spoon-feeding and prompting until they get it.
At the end of the day, we want to inspire students to walk away empowered and hungry to learn more. I think it’s important to be yourself and use your own passions in order to instill that. I always try to be myself when I’m teaching. For me, that means using humour, sarcasm and other quirks to make the classes and material memorable.
I’ve continually worked at improving my teaching approach but there’s still lots of areas I want to work on when I’m at the front of a classroom. I still fidget way too much (among other distracting gestures) when I present information and I can always see areas of improvement on how I explain or talk about ideas. The only way to improve these areas is to become aware of them and consciously alter your habits bit by bit.
I have quite a few teacher friends so I would love to hear their thoughts and tips on how they approach about . While my audience is a bit different from theirs (since I tend to only teach adults), it’s still valuable to learn from others who have walked the same path. If you’ve ever considered being a teacher in your area of expertise, I would recommend giving it a try. It’s fun, challenging and ultimately, very rewarding.