Every year, hundreds of Harvard undergraduates stream into math courses offered by the Department of Mathematics. Whether learning linear algebra or calculus, they can turn to the teaching fellows (TFs), who are the chief instructors for these courses, when they hit stumbling blocks. While TFs play an important role in the education of Harvard undergraduates, the name belies the true nature of this role. TFs live double lives, as both teachers and students. This duality is particularly prominent for Chi-Yun Hsu, a PhD student in the Department of Mathematics and a recent recipient of the Derek C. Bok Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching of Undergraduates.
A Wealth of Resources
Very few graduate students arrive on campus with any teaching experience. While Hsu had led problem sessions in her native Taiwan, she knew that helping students work through problem sets was very different from teaching and began looking for opportunities to learn more. “At Harvard, there are a lot of resources that you can choose to absorb or let go,” she explains. Choosing to absorb them, Hsu quickly took advantage of the opportunities offered to future TFs.
One of the first teaching classes Hsu took was “Classroom Communication Skills for International Teaching Fellows” (now the Professional Communication Program for International Teachers and Scholars) offered for international graduate students, teachers, and scholars by the Derek Bok Center. “Because my TOEFL speaking score was not high, I had to take a class that focused on both English and teaching skills,” Hsu explains. There she learned to articulate her thoughts, striving to make sure her audience could comprehend what she was saying. At the same time, Hsu was also taking “Teaching Undergraduate Mathematics,” a pedagogy course offered by the Department of Mathematics, in which she learned different teaching philosophies and focused on the math that she would eventually teach as a TF.
Between the Bok Center and the pedagogy course, Hsu had ample opportunities to hone her nascent teaching skills. “We practiced micro-teaching, where we pick one small clip of the course and teach it to our peers or volunteering undergraduates,” Hsu says, describing one such opportunity. “We then went to the real class to see how senior graduate students or preceptors teach the same material.”
BY FERNANDA FERREIRA
PHOTO BY MOLLY AKIN