The Mark J. Stehlik Introductory and Service Teaching Award
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh PA 15213-3891
(412)268-8525 . (412)268-5576 (fax)

Leaving a Thread

Diaj Toussaint
2021 Introductory and Service Teaching Award

I teach through analogies, so it is only fitting that I do so here. My name is Diaj Toussaint, and over the last seven semesters I have served as a teaching assistant for 15-110, guiding students through their maze.

Why the emphasis on their maze? All of us, no matter when or where we started our educational journey, has had to face a labyrinth built out of unique challenges and adversity. For me, that maze began long before I stepped foot on CMU's campus. I am a first-generation student, being the first in my family to attend college and navigate its trials. I am a low-income student, with far less tools than others on this path. I am a minority student, who at times has felt completely isolated on this journey. But nevertheless, I made it to the end of my maze, and along the way I have constructed a thread for others to follow. It is this thread of experiences and knowledge gained that I attempt to pass on to my students, so that they may navigate their maze with a little extra help.

My teaching philosophy centers around this idea of a thread. My goal as a teaching assistant has always been to help my students build out a thread of their own, whether it be within computer science or elsewhere. In order to do so, there are five key principles that I challenge both myself and my students to uphold in that process:

Come as you are. A vast majority of students who take 15-110 have taken on studies outside of CS, and you don't need a course roster to see that. In every classroom which I have taught, there is an unseen force in the room that keeps hands from being raised and voices silent. What is that force? It is the thought that you are an imposter. Everyone feels it. We as teachers at an introductory level in CS must recognize that this feeling exists, and work with our students to overcome it. This is why, at the start of every semester, I invite my students to share who they are coming into the course and, more importantly, embrace it. Before we engage with the material, we engage with each other and show that, despite the experiences we had prior to entering the classroom, we have all arrived at the same place.

Lead with care and understanding. As I said before, everyone faces unique challenges which often go unforeseen or overlooked. It may be the case that a poor grade on an exam or absences from lecture are signs that a student is struggling in the course. It may also be the case that these are signs that the student is currently going through a difficult time or has responsibilities outside of their education that they are tending to. The point is that as teachers, we will never know the full story. The best we can do is lead our students with care and with an understanding that the course which we teach is only a sliver of a much larger pie. When I teach, I drop the veil and let my students see the challenges which I may be facing at that time, with the hopes that they will be honest with me as well. I attempt to create this environment of empathy and compassion in every lesson, for the more we understand what is going on outside of the course, the better we can tailor our experiences inside.

We learn at our own pace. Rome was not built in a day, and neither is our comprehension of the material we study. I tell this to all of my students, as there is an overwhelming pressure at CMU to get things right the first time and as fast as possible. If we are to navigate our individual mazes successfully, we have to do so at a pace that is right for us. The end is always going to be there. When it comes to teaching, I work slow, and let each student dictate the pace that is right for them. If this means meeting at additional times, let's do it. If that means working through additional practice, that's okay too. In my classroom, there is no pressure to race to the end, it is all about what we learn along the way.

Make the work fun. There is nothing inherently fun about if-statements and for loops. My students don't laugh when I show them a binary search tree or trace through merge sort. What is fun is when me and my students stumble on a discovery together, and I'm just as surprised as they are. Or when a student points out that a certain feature of Python makes no sense. These moments are fun because they subvert the expectation that TAs are infallible and that they possess all of the knowledge. I love these moments as they highlight that we are in this pursuit of knowledge together, and that we can pause and enjoy the absurd moments as they come.

Pass it on. What is the point of learning if you can't pass it on? I am proud to say that many of the members of the 15-110 staff have once been students of mine. It means that I have successfully passed on my thread. To me, this is the reward of teaching. There is nothing more fulfilling than seeing the students who may have doubted themselves in the beginning, who may have taken more time than others, who may have been facing unforeseen difficulties succeed and go on to share that experience with others.

Teaching is all about this process. We offer our collection of experience and knowledge to those about to learn computer science or the first time. We guide them through it so that they do not have to do it alone. We give them the tools needed to succeed that they may not already possess. We do so with the hope that they will find a path better suited for themselves, one that makes their thread unique. Eventually, they will finish their studies and be a different person than when they entered. They carry more knowledge and experience, a thread that they may offer another.

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