First Person

What it means to be a teacher

When I was little, my younger brother and I used to play “school.” We’d haul out an old easel, and I would write letters and numbers on it and pretend to lecture about whatever new animal I’d learned about on Animal Planet’s The Most Extreme. I’d like to say that looking back, I always knew I’d end up teaching a real class one day. But if I’m being honest, I think I mainly enjoyed this game because of the opportunity it gave me to boss my brother around.

This past semester, I had my first experience teaching a class comprised of more than one sibling. It was a seminar called IDS 220: What Does It Mean To Be Human?, which was to be an interdisciplinary envoy into the over-arching explanation for all of humanity.

So, you know, a nice softball of a course — great for a first-time teacher, right?

” [ . . . ] the idea that anyone would ever actually think that I know enough about anything to lecture on it was laughable at best, absolutely terrifying at worst.”

Sam Horwitz

Luckily, I was able to work collaboratively with two other graduate instructors to craft the syllabus and structure of the class. But even with their encouragement and the guidance of the two professors who were advising us throughout the semester, the idea that anyone would ever actually think that I know enough about anything to lecture on it was laughable at best, absolutely terrifying at worst.

Looking back, I think the root of this self-doubt lay in the simple fact that I had no idea what I was doing. I had little experience to draw upon, especially considering for the fact that I’d be teaching over Zoom. And yet, slowly but surely, as the semester moved along and I continued to contemplate the question of what it means to be human as I prepared my lessons, I learned some lessons of my own about what it means to be a teacher.

Lesson 1: Honesty is the best policy.

This goes for most aspects of teaching, but especially when you’re deciding how to behave as an instructor to garner both respect and discussion from students. Going into the course, I felt young and unworthy of the students’ deference compared to the other graduate student instructors who were older, male, and more experienced.  

Even so, the students did actually seem to respect me, despite the fact that I never tried to hide that I was only a year older than most of them. In fact, I think they’d have respected me less if I’d tried to be the type of teacher I thought everyone wanted me to be instead of the type of teacher I actually am.

Lesson 2: Attention is a commodity that you must earn from your students.  

Speaking as a member of the Internet generation myself, we are used to being entertained by websites that are literally engineered to be addictive. When teaching remotely, (and I’d wager even in person, because who among us doesn’t whip an iPhone out under the table every now and then) that’s your competition.

That being said, keeping your lectures short and spicing them up with videos and engaging PowerPoints helps you to compete. Giving students breaks from lecture by sending them to breakout rooms to discuss material also seemed to work well.

“I think they’d have respected me less if I’d tried to be the type of teacher I thought everyone wanted me to be instead of the type of teacher I actually am.”

Sam Horwitz

Lesson 3: Find the “layman’s hook.”

People get lost in the minutiae of science — the complex equations, the long, clunky words. Instead, it’s the far-reaching, human-level conclusions that we draw from science that are the hooks that reel people in.

Example from the IDS 220 Classroom: The Layman’s Hook and Quantum Mechanics

I really wanted to teach a lesson about quantum mechanics. But heck, I’m in a chemistry PhD program and I even get uncomfortable thinking about all the physics and math involved! Still, if we zoom out from the unsolvable equations and unseeable physics, the truly mind-blowing implication we can draw from quantum theory is staggering: the very basis of all matter, the electron, has a degree of uncertainty. So how can we be certain of anything?

With this “Big Picture” strategy for tackling the smallest of the small, I asked the students to consider the idea of inherent uncertainty in all observation to get them to think about how we can arrive at objective truths from our subjective experiences of the world. In my opinion, this is way more interesting topic than learning how to solve the particle-in-a-box problem (no offense to my physical chemistry professor).

Lesson 4: Analogies are a teacher’s best friend.

If you’re trying to explain something abstract and unfamiliar, relate it to something concrete and familiar. In this way, you give peoples’ minds something to “see” and hold on to.

Example from the IDS220 Classroom: Analogies and Architects

I couldn’t figure out how to explain the central dogma of biochemistry (DNA -> RNA -> protein) to a group of students that included some non-science majors whose closest relations to the words “protein” and “RNA” might be meat and COVID vaccines, respectively. I used an analogy of the flow of work done by an architect to create a building (master copy -> blueprint -> building), and it seemed to really work to convey this essential understanding of how the biology governing every aspect of our physical bodies functions, laying the groundwork for me to talk about the really crazy sci-fi things later on.

Lesson 5: If your students aren’t talking, “force” them to in an organized, fun way.

People care most about ideas they’ve interacted with themselves. It doesn’t matter if you’re teaching philosophy, English, math or chemistry — if discussion isn’t a part of your lessons, students are invited to be passive observers instead of active participants in learning. Sometimes, you have to get creative to avoid this fate.

Final Exam: Remember Why We Care

As we move through a STEM education, I think we should ask what it means to be a teacher more frequently. Too often, we have our heads so buried in the minutiae that it’s difficult to draw a breath. It becomes challenging to see the humanity in what we’re doing, to remember why we came to science in the first place.

“Because all the greatest discoveries in the world don’t matter a lick if the only people who care about them are scientists.”

Sam Horwitz

Teaching an interdisciplinary class like IDS 220 made me remember the excitement with which I’d teach my brother about my favorite animals back when we were only pretending to learn. It gave me space to hold the knowledge that this excitement, this learning process, is for everyone. Science itself is for everyone, and science educators are our most essential tool for bringing up the next generation with this understanding.

Because all the greatest discoveries in the world don’t matter a lick if the only people who care about them are scientists. 

Example from the IDS 220 Classroom: The Ethics of CRISPR-Cas9 

One of the lessons I gave was about CRISPR-Cas9, a very complicated, but absolutely world-altering scientific discovery. This was one of the last classes I taught, and by this time, I’d realized it didn’t matter whether the students understood exactly how the fundamental chemistry of a discovery works, so much as they understand the implications for humanity.

To enable students from both nonscience and science backgrounds to engage with this topic, I had them break into teams to debate the ethics of how CRISPR-Cas9 should be used. With this activity, I was able to get this diverse group of students to passionately discuss one of the most important and ostensibly unanswerable questions in science at large – how can we use our science to better humanity in the best way possible without being certain of the future?

By Sam Horwitz

Sam Horwitz is a second year chemistry graduate student studying metalloenzyme dynamics in Kate Davis’ lab while also working as the science communications associate for the Department of Chemistry. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Sam enjoys performing and recording music with various projects in the Atlanta area in her free time.