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)

A Letter to Future CAs/TAs

Jordan D. Zink
2015 Introductory and Service Teaching Award

My thoughts and reflections on my time as a teacher are presented as a letter addressed to future CAs and TAs. Others are of course welcome to read and take away what lessons they want.

Dear future CA/TA,

Hi there! I am Jordan Zink, a CS and Robotics major in the class of 2015. I was a CA for 15-112 for seven semesters, twice as Head CA. I also started and taught a StuCo course on roller coasters for six semesters (StuCo is a really cool program which allows students to design and teach courses on whatever they want; I hope it is still around!). During this time, I have had a lot of experiences with students and teaching and am hoping to pass down some of this knowledge to you. I'll summarize my advice into three key points. Note that there is lots of good specific advice on how to CA/TA (such as how to ask the right questions to see if a student understands), but this advice is meant to be high level and general.

Give nothing less than your best – When you are teaching, put your all into it. Anything less is a waste of time and effort to your students, your fellow staff, and yourself. This requires dedication to what you are doing, such as being on time to all course events, always being helpful and friendly to students at office hours, and putting in the time it takes to get things done completely and to the highest quality. This requires sacrifice, as I can tell you from my own experiences: saying no to friends going out to dinner because I am holding a tutoring session, staying up late to finish and submit grades, and so on. Finally, it requires reflection and self-critique. No one is perfect, and everyone can improve on what they have done. Take a moment after all course events you do, be it lectures, recitations, office hours, or even grading, and reflect on how it went, what worked well, and what should change next time. Take these lessons to heart and you'll become much more effective.

Even though you should give your best, you must recognize what that means, and try not to do too much. Understanding your own boundaries is just as critical as putting forth all you can when teaching. In a perfect world, you could privately tutor every student, personally grade all the homeworks and quizzes for the entire class, and provide thorough, insightful feedback for all assignments. This is impossible though. Your time is simply not a plentiful enough resource, especially when you are a student yourself. Teachers who do not realize this burn themselves out, and I have seen it happen on several occasions. Accept that more could be done, and stop before you harm yourself and others.

Do not get frustrated – The life of a CA/TA includes moments of frustration or things you might consider failures. Fight all urges to give up and persevere. It can feel frustrating when working with a student in office hours and trying to help them understand a concept, but after several ways of explaining it they are still confused and writing incorrect code. Be patient, ask them questions to figure out what the cause of their lack of understanding is, and do your best to get them past that roadblock. I have had times where it has felt hopeless and then one last explanation makes everything click with the student. It can feel like a failure when you see your student still do poorly on an exam after you tutored them for hours. Do not discredit yourself as ineffective and focus on what you can do to continue to support that student moving forward.

Finally, it can make your job as a CA/TA feel futile when you look out into a sea of glazed eyes in a classroom and realize that many of the students in that room are not going to use any of what you are teaching them after the semester ends. This realization is probably easy to imagine in a course on roller coasters which is entirely an elective, but it is also widely true in intro programming, where some non-majors have to take the class even if they will never program again. This in no way discredits your teaching. Still pour the energy and passion into it so that you may leave the largest impact on students. View this realization as a challenged to convince your students that what you are teaching them is worth knowing. You would be surprised how often students actually find useful what they first thought was irrelevant.

Teach what you love – This is the single most important piece of advice I can give. All other advice I can give becomes completely natural and effortless when you are teaching something you love. Conveyed the right way, your students will also see that passion you have for the subject and cannot help but to feel it themselves. For my roller coaster class this is very straightforward; I have loved roller coasters since I was 7 years old and being able to share my love for coasters with students is an amazing thing. I cannot help myself but to get really excited when showing off a roller coaster and talking with students about what makes it such an interesting ride.

However, 112 is a little different. Single topics are sometimes a little dry (saying "I love strings" does not exactly roll off the tongue). What I really love is the whole experience, and the overall goals we are teaching them in the class. I had basic knowledge of programming coming into CMU, but as I moved through the curriculum here, I became even more fascinated and excited by programming and computer science. Sharing that fascination with students is what I strive to do every time I stand up in front of a recitation or lecture. I want to share with them the love I have for making computers do incredible things, and because it is what I love, it is an extremely rewarding experience.

So, to you, future CA/TA, I wish you best of luck in your endeavors and hope you too find your passion and teach others about it, whether it be technical topics in computer science or even something as random as roller coasters.

Jordan D. Zink, 2015

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