The Alan J. Perlis SCS Student Teaching Award
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh PA 15213-3891
(412)268-8525 . (412)268-5576 (fax)

Reflections on the Role of a Teacher

Jonathan A. Burns
2017 Undergraduate Student Teaching Award

As a freshman attending recitations for the first time, I was initially skeptical of the idea that fellow undergraduates would be able to help me learn any new material in a meaningful way. Teaching at the college level, I thought, required years of experience that only professors could offer. But within a few weeks, I saw that my TAs were not only very knowledgeable about their subjects, but also excellent at explaining them, kind, and even funny. By the end of my first semester, I knew I wanted to join them.

After 4 semesters as a TA, I'm now in the position of those I once looked up to. It's easy to forget how much of an impact I make every week on the lives of dozens of students. For those who are doing well in the course, an effective TA can provide a new perspective and spark new curiosity about the subject. For those who aren't doing as well, an effective TA can reinforce key concepts, guide students through difficult problems, and give students the confidence that they can succeed. And most importantly, an effective TA can be an inspiring role model fo r all students as they navigate the rigors of college life.

With the stakes so high, it's essential to know how to best serve your students. Here are the three points I've found to be most important: First, understand the material at least one level deeper than the students should. This makes it easier to find the best way to present the material, and you'll be in a much better position when a student asks a question you weren't expecting. Second, send a clear and consistent message to avoid distractions and confusion. Third, don't take student questions at face value–think about why they asked the question and address the underlying concern.

Finally, the best teachers and TAs always keep an intense focus on student learning that guides all their decisions, large and small. It's easy to make decisions based on evaluating "what the students want" against "what the course staff wants," but sometimes what's best for student learning will satisfy neither group. That's okay–decisions that help students learn better benefit both students and teachers in the long term, when students are more successful and teachers are proud of what their students have accomplished.

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