Teaching in the Tetons: What I learned

As I mentioned in my last post, teaching our summer field mapping course in Jackson, WY was my first teaching experience. Going into it, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was worried that because structure isn’t my area of research, I wouldn’t be up to the task and would be unhelpful for the students. I was worried I wouldn’t be a good teacher, able to explain things clearly and help students come to understand things on their own. I was worried I wouldn’t get respect because I’m a geochemist, not a tectonics person like my co-GSI and the professors. It turns out, I was worried for no good reason.

One of my biggest goals as a GSI was to be accessible to the students. During my undergraduate experience, at field camp and in the classroom, having good GSIs always made a huge difference in how I felt about the course and geology as a whole. My favorites were the ones who never made you feel bad for asking a question, and who were open to having a discussion about whatever you brought up even if it seemed obvious, or wasn’t directly related to the material. I had always found that the be the best learning environment, and I think that’s true for most people. (No one wants to be in an intimidating, oppressive, quiet classroom.) So I wanted to be able to give my students that experience, where curiosity is natural and learning is engaging… even… fun.

I think having my first teaching experience in the field actually made it easier to work towards this goal than had I been leading a classroom discussion section, or something to that end. I thought that maybe because we were all literally at the same level – hiking up kind of steep slopes to go look at some rocks – a potential barrier was broken down, and it was easy to strike up conversations. Doing so just feels natural in the field. “Hey, look at that!” “Come check out this funky rock!” “NO DO NOT EAT THAT.” I think I was able to be open and honest enough that students really felt comfortable asking me things – and it may have actually helped that they had a non-tectonics-and-structure-expert to come to with questions that they maybe would have felt bad about asking the professor or my co-GSI. Weaknesses as strengths!

In that vein, I also learned that even if you’re not really an expert in whatever it is – in my case, structural geology – to the students, you’re still a smartypants who got into a good grad school and probably knows things. Imposter syndrome is so very real that often, we forget that even we lowly grad students are very good at what we do and that we know things. Undergrad feels so long ago that maybe we have forgotten what it’s like and what our expectations were at that stage. Teaching isn’t about knowing everything absolutely; it’s about being able to guide students through figuring things out, being able to prompt them to speak when they’re unsure and to make them think when they just want you to tell them the answer. And it’s a little bit about knowing things.

Maybe the biggest thing that I learned was that I enjoy teaching a lot more than I expected. That might be an artifact of teaching in the mountains and camping for a month, but I genuinely enjoyed interacting with the students, getting to know them better, and sharing my enthusiasm for geology.

In the fall, I’ll be teaching a class on soils with my advisor. I’ll only be leading labs, which I think will be a good transition from field to classroom teaching since there’s still such a hands-on element, rather than just me lecturing. I find working through problems with students satisfying because it shows them a little bit about how I approach and think through things, and I can get a sense of how they’re coming at it. Two minds are better than one!

So, takeaways:

  1. Field teaching is E X H A U S T I N G. We’re hiking around, running back and forth between helping people, doing geology, keeping track of people, and grading or holding office hours in pretty much all our spare time. That’s just the nature of a condensed field course like this: intense.
  2. Students react to that intensity very differently. Some kids took it and ran; others needed more hands-on help and guidance. Figuring out how to balance my time and resources to best help everyone was definitely tricky at first, but it also goes back to…
  3. Being available and accessible. Again, for a live-in, short-term course like this was, it’s easy to be available, so adjusting this to fit an in-office, classroom schedule might be challenging. But having good GSIs was so influential for me as an undergrad, so I want to be able to fill that role for these students and hopefully give them as great as an experience as I had.
  4. Having limits and a schedule is important. A little hard to enforce at field camp, but putting aside time for yourself to recuperate and refresh your brain is absolutely essential. This is something I struggled with the first semester of grad school; I was working long office days, and would go back to work at home as soon as I scarfed a mediocre meal. I got better at this last semester, but it’s always something I can work on. (With prelims impending, who knows…)
  5. And finally: I learned that some days, teaching is a fun, very rewarding experience and everyone comes back with smiles. I also learned that teaching sometimes sucks, especially if it’s the third week of field camp and you just want some time to. your. self. but you can’t get it because hey, you’re all camping and cooking together and there’s still a week left before you drive home. I’m guessing this particular issue won’t be so pressing with classroom teaching, but it’s still going to be such a big time commitment that I’m sure there will be days where I really don’t feel like leading a lab or sitting in office hours. But being there for both the good and bad days is what makes a good, helpful GSI, and that’s what I want to be.
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