What Teaching Taught Me

Charles Price in a classroom, date unknown. Charles Price Image Collection, CHF Collections.

Last Thursday Tom described a study that suggested early career graduate students (students like me) were found to be better researchers if given some teaching experience. While this might seem surprising to some people, it comes as no shock to me. I taught high school science between college and graduate school and without a doubt, that year informs my research even now.

When you teach something you have to know your subject, and it was clear to me when preparing for the classes I was teaching how much I did not know. I had to teach myself how to really learn – in the way I wanted my students to learn – so I could better explain a concept to them. Similarly, if a researcher wants to figure something out, they need to be able to teach themselves about it before going forward into the unknown. To my surprise, no one mentions this fact in graduate classes.

Teaching also taught me how to communicate. Whether you’re trying to tell someone what you don’t understand about their question or they’re telling you what they don’t understand about your answer, communication is vital. When you’re teaching a class and students are staring at you waiting to learn, you need to have something to say to them. This is not as easy as it might sound, because you also need to say it in a way that they can understand. But this is what research is all about—communicating with your professor, collaborators, competitors, funding agency, fellow graduate students, etc.

Many teachers say that the classroom teaches them patience—patience like they have never known before. But many early researchers don’t know this same patience is required in the lab. You have to be patient with yourself by allowing time to think through something you do not understand, or addressing problems with your approach. You also have to be patient with your fellow researchers—many projects and experiments require a level of collaboration that does not come easily to the solitary scientist. Most importantly, you have to have patience with your experiment. Chances are if an experiment has not been done yet, it’s probably not easy!

Teachers learn much more from their experiences than they are probably aware of. In my case, teaching taught me how to learn, communicate and practice patience. The list, of course, does not stop here, but I can only teach you so much.

Christy Martin is an editorial intern at CHF. She is currently working on a Ph.D. in experimental astroparticle physics at Temple University.

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Posted In: Education

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