As I mention basically every post nowadays, I’ve been assistant teaching for a couple semesters, and it’s completely awesome.
I think I did a fine job in my first semester. The class was pretty small and pretty quiet, and everyone kept to themselves. I mostly worked with the same few students, though I did try to touch base with everyone each session. Sometime near the end of that semester one of the students I helped all the time said something funny and I smiled, and she remarked that it was so nice to see me smile sometimes because I was always so serious. I really enjoyed that semester, and I was chagrined to find out that I was hiding it so well!
So this semester my number one goal was to come across as less grave and more friendly.
At first, this took the form of just making sure to smile even if I felt awkward.
And I’ll be honest, I was feeling very awkward about offering help. I mean, I’ve always been more than happy to help anyone who asks, but I figured that not everybody wanted my help. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted the assistant’s help when I was a student. And did it make sense to interrupt people’s trains of thought to see if they had any questions? I personally dislike being interrupted.
So I walked around remembering to smile, and helped out the few people who flagged me down.
But one thing I could do a lot as an assistant was observe. And as I observed this class, I realized that the students in this group were interacting with each other all the time, and that this was deeply connected to the very positive, energetic feel of the class. When I first described it to my husband, I exclaimed in disbelief, “They meddle with each other! And they like it!”
I realized that there was a significant divide between our cultures and expectations. And I figured that if they liked being meddled with, my respectful restraint probably came across instead as standoffish, even when I smiled.
The only way toward my goal was to join in the meddling.
This was definitely outside of my comfort zone. I’m kind of shy, and I fear being annoying. And it was extra unnerving to treat people in a way I was pretty sure I wouldn’t want to be treated. But I did it anyway.
It went so well. It was an absolute joy.
The response was immediately 99% glowingly positive. I had to work a little bit on one person, but we got there in the end.
And I learned so much.
I learned to check that people understood the task’s instructions right away. (This is less obvious during class when I understand the teacher’s directions perfectly.)
I learned that talking face to face with one person or a very small group had much more impact than speaking from the front of the room.
I learned to go ahead and interrupt.
I learned to gently joke that if I did their writing for them, I’d be getting the grade.
I learned to have them remind me that they were next in line to work with me.
I relearned some basics for about the 600th time: to always start from what they know, to use examples, that they won’t remember what’s not written down, and to speak reasonably simply to reduce their cognitive burden.
I learned to help without leading. And I learned that leading is very distracting.
I learned to reach out in a way that I’d somehow missed before.
I’m grateful. And I’m looking forward to learning from my next class in the fall.