Teaching Fellows Talk About Microteaching

Marc Scheff, junior in Computer Science

Marc was a first-time undergraduate Teaching Assistant for CS 51 in the spring of '98. Because he missed the two TA meetings held by the course during intercession, and every TA was required to receive some form of teacher training, he decided to sign up for microteaching "so I wouldn't jump into section fully unprepared," he says, "Let's say I had some crazy problem with teaching - I'd rather know before I get into the first section." Because there was no course-wide microteaching scheduled, Marc signed up for a microteaching session with the help of the DEAS student coordinator.

One of the advantages of microteaching, Marc feels, is that "you get some hands-on experience - you actually do what your job is." Because the two other TAs involved in the microteaching session and the consultant, John Girash, were not in Computer Science, he says, "It was interesting to try to explain some ideas that I find pretty simple to somebody who didn't have much of a concept of what I was talking about." Marc felt comfortable receiving feedback from his peers and thought their comments were fair. "People are all in the same boat," he explains, "so they are willing to give you fair and accurate criticism because they want the same." As a first-time teacher, Marc also found John's comments especially helpful. "Not only his comments to me," he says, "but his comments to other people - I watched and I said, 'Oh, that's something I've got to watch out for,' or 'Oh, that's interesting to look for.'"

A week after the microteaching session Marc watched his teaching segment on tape with John. He was not surprised by anything on the tape, he says, "Because I feel like when you know you're under a scrutinizing, critical eye you are critical of yourself during the process. You're also over-criticizing yourself because you don't want to give other people the chance to - you'd rather catch it yourself." Still, he did notice some things that he felt he did well and some he thought he could do better.

Though Marc feels he did not learn anything earth-shattering in the microteaching session, he found the comments very helpful. "Even if it was a little comment," he says, "'This was good because you did this,' or even 'This wasn't so bad but you could do this better,' that's really helpful." Marc also thinks that it might be useful for people to see themselves teaching on tape more than once, "Because," he says, "they might just hold their breath and see it once and deal with it." As someone in a singing group who watches each concert on videotape afterwards, he explains, "It's useful to see yourself on a regular basis." Marc recommends microteaching to all TAs and TFs, adding, "I feel like even some of the more experienced Teaching Fellows would benefit occasionally from something like this, though they may not admit it."

Adam Fagen, G-5 in Biology, Society and Education, an Ad Hoc program

All the TFs for the course Adam taught - BS 1 - were required to participate in a microteaching session, even if they had teaching experience, as was the case with Adam, who had taught twice before but had received no formal training. Adam liked the fact that the head TF made a point of mentioning at the start of the microteaching session that it was designed to help rather than to "police" TFs. He feels that this point should be emphasized by those leading the sessions to make TFs more comfortable with the process.

Adam prepared two topics from the list the TFs were given and decided to do the more hands-on of the two in the session because it was something he hadn't done before. Although he can't remember saying anything positive about his own teaching at the session, the other TFs had only positive comments for him. He explains, "We always think 'Oh, I'm just not doing well' when you're up there teaching and it's nice to hear people say, 'No, No. I thought that was actually good.'" The main comment people had about his teaching, Adam remembers, is that he seemed very accessible and that students would feel comfortable asking him questions without feeling stupid.

The most useful aspect of microteaching for Adam was the chance to see himself teaching. He feels that seeing oneself in the role of teacher is an important step. "When I was teaching the first time," he says, "it took me a few weeks just to realize 'Okay, I'm up here, I don't know why, but I am and that's all there is to it." While microteaching may have helped him realize this role sooner the first time he taught, he feels that it helped him on a different level at this point in his teaching career. He was able to concentrate less on subject material and more on how it comes across to his students. He adds, "For me it was just useful to see that I'm actually doing better than I might have expected."

Because of his low expectations, Adam was pleasantly surprised when he watched himself teaching on videotape. "I was a lot more effusive and energetic and dynamic than I feel myself being," he says. So the experience turned out to be a validation of what he was already doing, but also a reminder to do certain things he feels he doesn't do enough. Adam also found watching the tape with a consultant very useful. He says, "Having somebody sitting there who's seen a lot more of these techniques and things, you can say, 'Did that make sense?' or 'Do you know a better way I could do that?'" There were also specific things that the consultant suggested Adam focus on and see how they went during the semester.

Another benefit of microteaching for Adam was having a chance to talk about teaching with his colleagues. Because he feels that there is not enough attention paid to teaching, especially in the sciences, Adam says, "It was encouraging and useful to start the dialogue about different techniques that you can use." This dialogue continued throughout the semester. Having a microteaching session at the outset, Adam says, "makes for a very collegial atmosphere; we try to help each other out and provide suggestions when they're useful."

Olivia Johnson, Center for Astrophysics

Olivia, a recent graduate of Vassar working at the Center for Astrophysics, had never taught before receiving a Teaching Assistantship for Science A-35. She and her fellow TAs and TFs, even those who had done microteaching before, were required by the course head to participate in a microteaching session. Participants were told to prepare seven minutes of a class they would teach during the first week. "I remembered a problem I had learned my freshman year in astronomy class," Olivia says, "about comparing the stars in the sky with the number of grains of sand on the beach and it's a nice concise problem, so I chose it."

Olivia was very nervous about teaching, especially because she was not a graduate student and had never taught. But the experience of standing up and teaching at the microteaching session actually eased her nervousness and served as a reminder, she says, "that I do know what I'm doing and that I know the subject." Olivia was thankful that she had the chance to practice teaching before going into a real classroom. "I used an overhead projector, which I'd always done in undergraduate consortiums," she explains, "and it was a dismal failure for trying to teach a problem, so probably within the first half-minute I knew that was not the way I was actually going to teach a class." Even so, she felt that she had done better than she'd expected, which boosted her confidence. Watching herself teach on videotape served as a further confidence-builder. She hadn't really believed the consultant when he had told her she did not look nervous teaching, but when she saw the tape for herself she had to agree with him.

Olivia found the comments on the other TFs' teaching extremely helpful. "There were lots of things," she says, "as a first-time teacher that I'd never thought about. I learned a lot about using blackboards and I also learned a number of ways of getting students more involved that I wouldn't have thought about." She also thought it interesting to hear different ideas about teaching methods. She says, "I guess there's a main philosophy here which is 'get your students involved,' but the ways in which different people had planned to do it - it was interesting to hear the variation."

As with Adam's course, the dialogue among TFs initiated at the microteaching session continued throughout the semester. "I think it probably helped in getting us to know each other," Olivia says, "and also to let each of us see the level of our surroundings. As someone who isn't a grad. student and hasn't had any sort of introduction to teaching, it was reassuring to see that everyone else there was doing the same caliber stuff I was, and I think that probably helped me to talk more in TF meetings, knowing these people weren't going to say, 'You fool!'"

Sam Dyson, Center for Astrophysics

Sam, who did his undergraduate work in physics at Yale, was a TA for the same course as Olivia, and so was also required to participate in the microteaching session. Sam had spent the year after his college graduation teaching high school in South Africa, and then had taught several sections for an introductory physics course at Yale.

Though Sam had teaching experience, he had never had any formal teacher training. He says, "One of the things I really liked about microteaching is that it got us ready for the semester of TA-ing by really dealing with the methods of teaching and the session we had was very real. And it was very good to have the feedback of other people who will be in the same position, who were able to put themselves in the place of students - it really made you think about how your approach would be received by students." Sam also liked the fact that everyone, including the teacher, had to say something positive first. He says, "You don't often think about what you did well and what you enjoyed and I'm sure that it assured a lot of people before the first section."

Sam felt the feedback he received was extremely helpful. He was glad to hear that people enjoyed his fun, easy-going style which developed during his year of teaching high school students. But through one of the consultant's comments he realized that his self-deprecating manner might sometimes go too far. When he introduced himself to the "students" he said, "'I'm an astrophysicist, but, you know, that term is a bit lofty for me, I'm not all that.'" He realized that making jibes at himself for comic relief might make his students doubt him.

Sam watched himself on tape with the consultant immediately after the session. In addition to confirming the comments above, the tape made Sam aware of his tendency to rush through a lesson because, he says, "I believed that the whole thing is summed up and made valuable by the final sentence or conclusion and not by the method along the way." Something he saw that he felt was good was that he asked the "students" their names. "Because of that," he says, "I spent a lot of time at the first section and the next one with the students thinking about their names, really trying to remember who they were."

Sam feels that microteaching is a good way for teachers to prepare themselves for their first day of section. As teaching high school served as an ice-breaker for him, Sam says, "I think in the same way microteaching really just relaxes people and if they come away with no other constructive criticism or positive feedback, at least they have their nerves slightly more under control and that is a really good thing." He adds, "I think good things come from it. It gives an air that what we are doing is important. It conveys the sense that teaching is not something you do because you know the material, that that doesn't qualify you to be a teacher. And I look forward, if I'm ever TA-ing again, to doing it again. "

Elizabeth Ross, G-2 in Fine Arts

Liz calls herself "the great experiment" in her department because she is the only graduate student - in student memory - to teach as a G-2 and while still taking courses. The course she was teaching - Landmarks in World Architecture - did not organize a microteaching session because, Liz says, all the other TFs had taught before. It was only after Mary-Ann had suggested microteaching to Liz that she found out that she was actually required to do some kind of training as a first-time teacher. Mary-Ann organized a microteaching session for Liz and one other TF teaching an introductory Fine Arts course (Silvia Foschi, see below). Because there were only two TFs involved, Mary-Ann recruited two undergraduates to act as students during the teaching segments and to offer feedback.

The microteaching session took place the day before Liz's first section, "So that was very good," Liz says, "because Mary-Ann got me in there very fast and I managed to do it before I actually had to go in front of a real-live audience." However, she adds that if it had not been a positive experience, it would have been a bad idea to have it the day before her first section.

Liz was nervous about teaching because she is not much older than the students and architecture is not her field, so much of what she was teaching was also new to her. Though she felt comfortable with the lesson plan for the first section because it was "tried and true," having been used for years in another architecture course, Liz was worried that the students would realize that she was teaching from a script. Therefore, in the microteaching session, she says, "It was very positive to have undergraduates say, 'We liked the way this worked pedagogically,'" and she was pleased when they were surprised to learn that she was following a script. Because the undergraduates responded well to the lesson, Liz says, "I didn't have that fear that I was going to walk into the section and have people be quiet."

Liz felt that the microteaching session was not enough to completely assuage all her fears because she had only taught the beginning of one lesson and the sections would inevitably become more complicated. Furthermore she wondered whether the positive comments had more to do with the script than with her teaching. Therefore, a few weeks later she had Mary-Ann follow up on the microteaching with a visit to her section. While she thinks of microteaching as a positive experience which gave her confidence to go in and teach her first section, she says, "I remember when Mary-Ann came to the section as being a more constructive and critical exercise, so the two went in tandem."

When asked whether she would recommend microteaching to other TFs, Liz says, "Yes, for first time TFs it gives confidence and then to follow through with having someone sit in on your section is good." She also thinks microteaching could benefit TFs who have already taught, because they might fall into patterns and stop evaluating themselves. She adds, "Anything that keeps you thinking about your section as opposed to just doing them each week - not just 'what am I going to do in there for an hour?' but 'How am I going to do it' - is a good thing."

Silvia Foschi, visiting scholar at the Graduate School of Design

Silvia, a visiting scholar from Italy teaching LA B-39 (Michelangelo), participated in the same microteaching session as Liz. Though she had taught many times during her doctoral program in Italy, Silvia had never taught in America; therefore, she was required to go through some kind of training. She participated in the Bok Center's Teaching in English Program in January, which, she says "was absolutely useful to me because I couldn't understand the American system - we don't have sections in Italy and we don't have that kind of close relationship with students - not at all." When Mary-Ann suggested Silvia do the microteaching as well, she felt that the more she learned about teaching in the American classroom beforehand, the better.

In Italy, Silvia was accustomed to lecturing her students, of whom, she says, "it is required that they know something about history, art historical language, art, so I start my lecture without thinking that they don't know something because they have to know it - it is absolutely up to them." Therefore, leading a discussion among students with widely differing backgrounds was something completely new to her. She found it very useful to get feedback on her teaching before she went into the real classroom and she didn't feel criticized, she says, "because I realized that it was something that I needed."

Silvia watched herself teaching on tape twice, once during the Teaching in English program, and then after the microteaching session. She remembers the first time being struck by how serious she looked while teaching. She felt that she had to change, "because I have to be more friendly with my students," she says, "especially because they are so young and so scared by art." She also realized that she had to open up a dialogue with her students. She explains, "At the beginning I was more focused on my field, on what I had to say, to teach, and now I think it's more important to let them speak." Though Silvia did not comment on this herself, Mary-Ann recalls Silvia's surprise at seeing herself using more body-language to explain things in English than she does in Italian. Mary-Ann adds, "This was really effective when she was trying to explain the difference between high relief and low relief sculpture - the students responded to that very positively."

Like Liz, Silvia felt that just as helpful as the microteaching session were the follow-up meetings with Mary-Ann during the semester. She says, "I worked with her in order to prepare every section - she helped me all the time." Not only did they talk about each section beforehand, they also discussed how it went afterwards.

Though Silvia feels that as a foreign TF it was "absolutely useful" for her to receive teacher training in order to learn a new system, in general, she says, "I don't think that you can learn to teach. It's something that you have inside yourself - maybe I'm very Italian in this. You can improve, but not learn." And she explains, "The best way to improve yourself is experience." However, Silvia does say that she will take some of the things she learned about teaching at Harvard back to Italy with her, adding, "I want a more direct relationship with my students - absolutely."