Thoughts from a (Brief) Teaching Experience

Recently there was an interesting article in the NY Times called “How I Helped Teachers Cheat” about an academic ghostwriter.  While I have no experience with ghostwriting, I found the following quote from his article interesting, which I will get back to later in the story:

In 2004 it was revealed that more than 500 students in a Birmingham, Alabama high school had been urged by teachers or principals to drop out of school before the test, for fear they would bring the school’s test scores down.

I was a teaching assistant (TA) in graduate school.  This was back in the days of chalk blackboards (we didn’t even have dry-erase boards) and we had just gotten rid of mimeograph paper and gone to regular copies for printing.  At that time, grades were kept in a little book, by hand, and that is how results were calculated.  I was the first TA to try to calculate grades on a computer in my field of study.

I don’t remember a lot about teaching but I remember the first day pretty clearly.  I was teaching an introductory accounting course that was required for graduation by many schools at my university, and it also held a lot of introductory accounting majors that could be described as highly motivated.  Thus when I stood in front of the group it was a mix of fifth year seniors trying to get this course done so they could escape the university and first semester sophomores taking their first accounting class to get started on their profession.  Since I graduated undergraduate early, I was younger than probably half the students in my class (the fifth year seniors).

While you could use the word “teaching”, it really was just a Friday TA session and the main work was done in giant lecture halls on Monday and Wednesday by a professor.  We were supposed to go through problems and discussion tied with the course curriculum, and go through problems with the students.

I had no training whatsoever and little preparation.  Oh well.  I just kind of winged it.  Unlike regular classrooms you don’t have discipline problems or any of that when you are teaching accounting… this wasn’t some sort of “hard knocks” episode.

There were a few major tests and a project required to calculate the grade.  After the first exam, I looked at my section against the 25 or so other sections (this is a big university) and noticed that the average score of my section was near the bottom.

Even though there wasn’t any pressure on me to be a good teacher or even to help my students get better, my competitive streak kicked in and I was not happy that my section was low on the list.  So I sat down and looked at the types of students that I really had in my group:

  • first semester accounting sophomores – these students aced everything and were great. Frankly many of them likely knew a lot more about the details of the material than me
  • fifth year general majors, particularly agriculture – these students were a mix but generally on the low end.  They were just trying to get through this class and get out of the university
  • Students who were clearly failing, not attending class, and not trying
Based on these three groups of students, I devised a strategy to try to improve my section score and move up the rankings.
  • Sophomores – Ignore them.  They were doing well anyways.  They always asked the hardest questions, for example problem #55 (out of 1-55), where all the assumptions were reversed because it was a corner case.  But it turned out that when I answered THEIR hard questions, the rest of the class was completely lost because they didn’t even understand questions 1-10 (the easy ones). Those kids even asked me for more comments on the homework I graded.  If I had enough sophomores like this, I’d cruise to the top of the rankings anyways because they were all self-motivated 
  • Fifth year seniors – Teach them.  The fifth year seniors were people that I saw at the bars around campus and actually could learn if you talked to them.  So I would call on them in class and basically humiliate them a bit.  “Do you understand this problem?”  A few seconds would prove that they didn’t.  Then I would say “Why don’t you ask a question?”  and after a few sessions of this they would mostly perk up and put a little bit of effort into this.  No one wants to be humiliated by being asked direct questions in front of a class and then heckled
  • Failing students – Get them out.  At the time in order to get funds to stay in school you had to go past the “drop date” and then you’d get your state money.  Apparently it didn’t matter if you were failing or not because they’d just take my class and not drop and be failing.  Whenever we had exams (which apparently they had to sit for?) I would say hello to them loudly in front of the section and ask where they had been in class and everybody laughed because I would start class by calling attendance only on the students that never attended, so people recognized their names.  I don’t know if I succeeded in getting them to drop faster but it was all I could do since they didn’t come to class and apparently didn’t care about failing.  The last power I had left was to call them out

Based on these (primitive) tactics, my section moved up against all the other sections and by the end of the year we were above average, which is all I ever could have accomplished when you match up 5th year seniors in the agricultural college from actual accounting majors in the prime of their motivation.  That felt good.

But I could sympathize with the teachers who were trying to get students to drop who weren’t even trying.  I’m sure that there is some book or process somewhere about how everyone can learn and you can reach them through superhuman methods but when you are up there teaching and trying and they aren’t even showing up, that’s frustrating too.  In no way was my tiny TA stipend at risk through poor teaching or poor results, it was just my own competitive nature that was pushing me to actually try to improve the net results of my team.  And that’s the end of my brief (formal) teaching experience.
Cross posted at LITGM

22 thoughts on “Thoughts from a (Brief) Teaching Experience”

  1. This brings back memories of one of the most regimented classes I ever took, precalculus. I took to calling the woman who taught the class, Mrs S., the Drill Instructor because of the way she ran it. In her introductory lecture she warned (bragged to?) us that her class had the highest failure rate at the community college. Half the class, on average, was going to fail.

    The part that really shocked me came after two weeks of extended general math review and testing. She opened her Tuesday class by writing 10 (or so) names on the board while explaining that she was having those listed dropped from her class since they didn’t belong in there. Wow. That was harsh. She was correct in her prediction too. By finals, at least half of the class was gone. That said, she taught me more math in one semester than any three semesters I had in high school, and I went to a very good high school.

    Unrelated, but a funny thing I remember from that class. There was VERY good looking girl in there who was very quiet. For reasons I only vaguely understand, she showed up for the final in a tight form fitting miniskirt, wooden wedge heels, and a thin clingy white cotton t-top with a plunging V-neck. Her long dark wavy hair was pulled back with one of those leather and wooden dowel things and she looked very tan. She looked stunning, like a model who’d stepped out of a magazine. After the exam, we were asked to come up and take a class review form from the desk, fill it out, and drop it off as we left. After picking hers up, she went back to her desk, which was one row back from the front row on the right side of the room, bent over at the waist with her backside angled toward the class, and proceeded to fill out the form on her desk. Everything in the room just seemed to stop then. Time stopped. You could’ve heard a pin drop. Every eye in that room, male and female, was glued to her. I remember feeling my entire body temperature go up and feeling like I could hardly breathe. After a moment of feeling like I couldn’t move, I turned my head slowly towards the girl next to me and she looked back at me with her mouth open and a look of complete shock on her face. As I crossed my vision back through the room, I saw Mrs. S staring at her transfixed, with knives in her eyes, her hands clenched at her sides and standing completely rigid. The beauty, whose name I never knew, signed her form, straightened up, walked nonchalantly up to Mrs. S and handed her the form and left without a glance back. Mrs. S, for her part, snatched the form out of her hands and gave her the death stare all the way out of the room. I will never forget that.

  2. When I came back from Dartmouth in 1995, I took a couple of years of computer science courses at the local community college, called junior college in CA. The department was excellent and some of the instructors also taught the same class at UCI. The first night (They were almost all night classes), the seats were all full and and the classroom was standing room only. By midterms, the class was half empty and by the final, there were four or five of us left. Most of those left were over 50.

    The same thing happened with each class.

  3. Thank You Mr. Hiteshaw for reminding us what’s important.

    Really. Pre-Calculus is wasted on some people, which was the point being made I’m sure. You could teach me Lamaze Breathing techniques for delivery, but I won’t.

    Perhaps we can skip undergraduate school for the Birmingham unfortunates. Really. Just mail the degree, we can get the same result for a dollar that we get for a hundred thousand or more.

    Now can we agree the last time our society was SANE was probably 1960?

    Or perhaps 1860.

  4. When I was teaching at UCLA, I used to call or write students who were obviously going to fail and beg them to drop the class before the date after which I would have to put that “F” on their record.

    Some of them took the hint.

  5. I suppose Mr. Hiteshew and perhaps even Carl from Chicago will disagree with me but I feel very strongly about this and just can’t let it pass.

    First, let me say that the “just not trying, not coming to class” type student should fail, and I have no interest in their plight other than to be curious about what kind of perverse incentives are at work. Further, I understand that as a TA Carl’s options were limited.

    On the other hand…

    When I taught (community / tech college, accredited but way low end) if *every* student missed a particular question on a test, I threw it out. Why? Because if everyone from the D- to the A+ missed it the trouble is me not them.

    I can’t imagine why students tolerate teachers at any level who can only succeed half the time, that’s not 50% of the students failing, that’s the teacher failing. I’ve seen a lot of this and it is endemic in mathematics.

    The actual truth is that very few people are good at teaching math and even fewer even try. The whole paradigm is one of macho regimentation of a kind that would make a Marine Corps drill instructor blush. BUT, what would happen to a drill instructor who washed out over 50% of his recruits year after year?

    Calculus is the most infamous of the classes, and it serves as the pre-requisite for about half of the majors and half of the career paths, whether it is used in those careers or not. IF it is that critical, shouldn’t it be taught rather than used as a filter?

    I frequently hear concerns about there being relatively few women in STEM subjects… is this surprising given the “mine’s bigger than yours” “man up” kind of atmosphere in which math is taught? You can hear the echos of it in MikeK’s remark, and in VXXC’s, though I can’t say whether they approve or disapprove.

    I’m most amazed by Mr. Hiteshaw’s remark:

    That said, she taught me more math in one semester than any three semesters I had in high school, and I went to a very good high school.

    I don’t see how you can square that with your earlier remarks, which imply, at least to me, that she was unable or unwilling to actually teach her subject? That teacher must have been very odd indeed.

    It occurs to me that there is a huge opportunity out there for a for-profit calculus school / tutoring service… but first someone would have to invent a way to teach the subject rather than merely barking at the class for an hour a day and then failing the students who don’t manage to learn it on their own…

  6. John, of the four or five students left in computer science class for the final, two of them that I recall were women. One (age about 50) was going to UCLA for her MLIS (Library Science) and the other was a young woman who planned to get a degree in some form of computer design. If you were implying sexism on my part, you were wrong. My daughter and her husband both have MLIS degrees and she is planning a web design business with him. Another year, one of the holdouts was a young woman who was a waitress in a nearby restaurant and transferred to U of Nevada at the end of the year.

    There is a significant proportion of the population who are best avoiding higher math like calculus. They could make good livings as Mercedes mechanics or plumbers if they would apply themselves.

    My high school girlfriend (we both graduated in 1956) is a past president of the Society of Women Engineers. She worked at North American Rockwell on the Mercury program, among others. You are not good at mind reading.

  7. “I’m most amazed by Mr. Hiteshaw’s remark:

    That said, she taught me more math in one semester than any three semesters I had in high school, and I went to a very good high school.

    I don’t see how you can square that with your earlier remarks, which imply, at least to me, that she was unable or unwilling to actually teach her subject? That teacher must have been very odd indeed.”

    I’m not sure how to answer that. I can only say that it was a demanding class and her attitude was keep up or fail. I will also say she worked as hard or harder than anyone in that class. Every homework paper was returned the following week, every line had been checked, and comments occasionally made about other approaches or better methods for solving it. I assume she did that for every student in every class. Her classes were well planned and she led us, logically, step by step through lots of mathematics such that we understood why something behaved as it did, what information could be drawn from it and where its boundaries were. As an example, we did a 3-4 week review of trig, and I remember feeling like I was seeing it for the first time. She started with a unit circle, which I’d never seen before, then derived all the trig functions from a radial arm in the circle. We graphed all the functions, got peak, average and instantaneous values from them, combined them with other functions via F of G of X [fog(x)] to model things like logarithmic decay of a wave front. She taught everything that way. She started at the very beginning, took us through all the basics, then extended those into things we’d never seen before.

    I agree with you that teaching is a skill, and not everyone who does it is very skillful, and some are terrible. I think everyone appreciates a good teacher, and I’ve remembered my best and thanked them, repeatedly in my mind, for my entire life. And I can still recall almost all their names.

  8. My second year in UT Austin’s Mechanical Engineering was the one where I found out what I was going to do with my life whern I took Thermodynamics. The teacher was a semi retired professor emeritus who loved teaching and never hesitated to answer any question. That being said, his class was TOUGH.

    It consisted mostly of working problems. He would spend about half the Monday class explaining new concepts, then the rest of the week was working through problems. Dr. Brown was the only man I know who could interpolate steam table values to 5 decimal places in his head. Home work counted for almost half the grade and we had only two tests, the midterm and the final.

    The midterm was just a bunch of relatively simple thermo problems, but there were a LOT of them.

    The final was one problem. It started off: “This is a coal fired power plant”. He gave us the performance characteristics of the various heat exchangers, pumps, the turbine/generator, and the boiler, and the heat value of the coal.

    We had to calculate the Megawatt electrical output.

    It took almost the entire 4 hours the finals were allotted.

  9. MikeK:

    If you were implying sexism on my part, you were wrong.

    Sorry, hadn’t meant to imply that at all, nor to imply that women can’t do well in science, math, etc. (my wife is an MIT grad…)

    What I was trying, ineptly perhaps, to get at, is that I hear a frequent complaint about there being fewer women than men in “STEM” disciplines both educationally and vocationally. Lots of verbal and written head scratching about why that would be… when I find the answer obvious: Women, on the average, don’t want to put up with the macho culture of a math classroom… and I don’t either, so they can go ahead and call me a sissy or whatever…

    Michael Hiteshew:

    A very unusual individual indeed. I think we could use more like her… and yet, a 50% failure rate? Maybe it had something to do with how the class was presented or described? Also, what is the purpose of publicly shaming those who are not doing well? Is that a motivational technique?

    To no one in particular: I just can’t buy the idea that very high attrition rates are the sign of a good teacher and a well taught class. We wouldn’t accept that kind of criteria in any other field except maybe politics. It is also interesting that I, at least, have rarely heard of such a thing outside of mathematics.

  10. ” It is also interesting that I, at least, have rarely heard of such a thing outside of mathematics.”

    In my freshman Physics class the professor on the first day said, “Look at the person to your left and right, in front and behind you. At the end of this semester, only one of you will still be here.” I guess that’s what you mean.

    I still teach medical students. For 25 years, I taught surgery residents by making rounds on their patients with them and assisting in surgery. When I retired from practice, that wasn’t wanted anymore by the department, which had changed chairmen and a good deal of philosophy anyway. I started with students about 15 years ago in a small group model that has me meeting with a group of six every week for a half day. Medical school is changing a lot and I’m not enthusiastic about some of the changes.

    In the program now, I teach in the second year. It used to be first and second. Now, what I teach is mostly physical diagnosis skills and the beginning of putting all the basic courses together to arrive at a diagnosis. At least half the students are now women and the faculty of this program I’m in is about 60% women. Of the male instructors, I think only three or four of us are older physicians. The rest are new graduates.

    I tend to emphasize practical skills and am much less concerned with the “touchy feely” aspects of medical education, which are growing rapidly. In the faculty meetings, I pretty much keep my mouth shut. Once, I made a comment a few years ago that the World War Two US Army was greatest educational institution I knew of. It had taught 200,000 men to fly in three years. I got some disbelieving snorts from a couple of female faculty members and have kept my own counsel since.

    My health is not that good the past three years. Each year, I have concluded that this will be my last. The only reason why I have continued is the student evaluations. They seem to like the nut and bolts, practical approach. The department seems to be very concerned about attendance and tardiness. I have never had a student skipping the session or coming late. I have gotten concerned as I learn how many students skip lecture classes. They seem to be less concerned about lectures and the materials provided seem to be more important to them.

    I have them present each patient to me at the bedside, just as they will have to do in the third year and later. They have to quickly summarize the facts and present them in front of the patient. I have seen patients interrupt such presentations to correct a fact in the history. If there are physical findings, like a heart murmur or an enlarged liver, I examine the patient with them and the other students in the group also do so. Most patients allow this but not all.

    One time, about six years ago, I was going to be away on the day we were scheduled, so I arranged a substitute instructor. The following week, the students asked me not to do that again. They told me she spent the three hours psychoanalyzing them. I suspect a good number of my fellow instructors have a similar approach to the teaching of medicine. I don’t know what I will do next year. I’ll see the evaluations first.

  11. “Also, what is the purpose of publicly shaming those who are not doing well? Is that a motivational technique?”

    I said I was shocked by that, and I still am. It was uncalled for and unnecessary. It was the first manifestation I saw of her least attractive personality trait, she had a not quite concealed contempt for anyone who could not keep up with her teaching. She would explain things once or twice, after that she considered the problem yours. I’ve seen this trait in many people I’ve known over the years, people who have a much higher aptitude or ability at something than the average person. They can’t seem to resist lording their ability – or gift, like good looks – over everyone around them.

    On the other hand, she taught me a lot of math, and I’m grateful to her for that.

  12. MikeK,

    As usual you bring up some good points, responding and elaborating on them all would result in pages of meandering on my part, so I’ll spare everyone that…

    The biggest point your remarks bring to my mind is that while you’ve been teaching recently, I haven’t seen the inside of a classroom in a long time. Things change, I just suspect they haven’t changed for the better. Maybe I should go take a class and see what the “state of the art” is….

  13. I’m sexist.

    So was the hottie who made the point of what’s what to the rather nasty, officious, taste of power math teacher.

    I doubt her teaching took one’s breath away.

    However the taste of power does strange things. That’s not actually power more a faint whiff of it. the smaller the person, the more instant the trip, the less power will ever be granted. Hopefully.

    Nice argument back and forth with John on who’s sexist or not. The courage is dripping from the pages.

    There are women who can do math. I for instance can’t, and don’t care. I do work in tech, there are women in tech. I suppose it’s not so important in the public sector. In the private sector results count. Unless you’re a woman. That’s sexist, and reality. I have to get results. They merely have to be women. Nice people. And the miracle of children come from them.

    wow. Math has a macho atmosphere, huh?

  14. I just can’t buy the idea that very high attrition rates are the sign of a good teacher and a well taught class. We wouldn’t accept that kind of criteria in any other field except maybe politics. It is also interesting that I, at least, have rarely heard of such a thing outside of mathematics.

    In calculational mathematics, there’s a right answer and it matters whether you get it right. In “real” mathematics, whether you have successfully proved a theorem logically can be determined objectively, and again it matters. Similarly in engineering, in physics, in chemistry.

    What that means is that there is no wiggle room, no way to pass someone who is nice to the teacher, tries hard, or perhaps is indeed intelligent but for whatever reason does not get the answer right.

    And what that means is that some people will fail or drop out, because there’s no real way in a math class to pull them over the finish line unless they can and do get that right answer. In fields where there is no right answer, objective criteria are less important and instructors can devise some way to get everyone who makes an effort a passing grade, but not in math. There’s no maneuvering room for mild dishonesties of that kind.

    Attrition is not in itself a sign of good teaching. It might be because the class is pitched at too advanced a level, because the teacher is terrible at explaining concepts, or because they’re AWOL when it comes to helping a student who is struggling. But you can expect some attrition in a well-taught class.

    Carl’s triage – ignore the students who were prepared and doing well – makes sense as triage, when you have limited time and energy. But it depresses me. It’s why smart kids in elementary and high school are so often shortchanged on their education – same constraints, same solution, same attitude: “They’ll be OK so no need to bother teaching them anything.”

  15. This is a very interesting comment thread. I often find that the threads are more interesting than the posts :)

    A few thoughts:

    – I think people attach the concept “teach” very holistically when in this case I was being tactical. The students who were choosing accounting as a career were co-mingled with people who either wanted the least amount of accounting they could get away with (the fifth year seniors) or none at all (those who planned to drop out)
    – Being bad or not caring about accounting is probably less dangerous for the world at large than a lack of basic foundational mathematics
    – Looking back on it probably I should have invested more time and energy in the “good” students but people need to realize that TA’s are not “teachers”… I had a full class load and needed to study for the CPA exam to boot (plus socializing and going out, let’s be realistic) and I was actually doing a lot more than was expected by even “paying attention” to the fifth year students
    – Most of the “teachers” I encountered at major public universities seemed to be used to 1) lots of people failing out 2) people not understanding what was going on in class. When I first started to teach it hit me that probably 50% of the students had no idea of what was going on but weren’t going to ask a question. That was odd
    – The fact that I could even communicate fluently in basic English made me an outlier among TA’s… and probably helped me as well

    But thanks for the thoughts.

  16. Medical students are highly motivated and highly intelligent. That said, it surprised me when I learned that almost half of them don’t attend lectures. The basic science faculty passes out extensive notes on an internal network and the students prefer that to attending lectures. Some lecturers are good and entertaining. That makes a huge difference. It was amazing to me when I learned that one of my favorite lecturers from medical school in 1963, David Berman, was still teaching pharmacology in 2003. That’s forty years ! My students told me he was one of the best instructors they had.

    Another instructor was very good with the audio-visual. He actually had written a video game that simulated the university hospital.

    In my day we took voluminous notes at lectures, not all of which were that great. One of my classmates took his notes in Chinese characters as he said it was faster. Now the internal network has lots of material which has largely replaced lectures.

    I spent some time trying to develop an online teaching tool using video and imaging. Before I got anywhere with it, some guys in Irvine sold a similar product to WebMD for 300 million.

  17. MikeK – I have had several interesting experiences taking computer classes at 2 community colleges. The first time I took a class in systems design. It was the worst class I have taken in 4 years of university (VA), a year of law school, and a year of a computer technical school.

    The teacher in this class was a relic from the 1960s who hadn’t worked professionally in (at the time) a good 30 years.

    If that weren’t bad enough he went on in this monotone that guaranteed to put you to sleep within 30 minutes.

    I would look around all over the class at the 30 minute mark and see bobbing heads all over the place.

    Did I say he was horrible?

    Fast forward a few years and a friend of mine, who I’d consider one of the top 1-2% of programmers, decided to teach there part time.

    He came to the class with the same perspective as an employer showing – and teaching – students how to think through a problem and come up with the needed software.

    His tests were not aced by rote memory but solving problems.

    He soon got a reputation for being tough about absolutely great at giving those who passed valuable skills in a real work place.

    He tried to talk the facility into teaching unix but none were interested – reason being they had all been out of the real world so long they didn’t realize Unix was the up and coming thing with the www.

    Of course today unix (and its lawful heir linux) are running the www.

  18. Bill, I had a similar instructor teaching C. Working on his assignments was when I discovered I could not write code after even one beer. I think it was my first inkling of getting old. That was 1995.

  19. Michael Hiteshew @November 16th, 2013 at 6:33 pm

    As an example, we did a 3-4 week review of trig, and I remember feeling like I was seeing it for the first time. She started with a unit circle, which I’d never seen before, then derived all the trig functions from a radial arm in the circle.

    My high school math teacher taught trig using the unit circle, so I was very surprised to find out there were other ways of teaching trig. OTOH, she was an exceptional teacher, one of the best I have ever had. I was fortunate to have her for two years. She had a way of making things easy as pie- if you listened to her- but also with high expectations.

  20. This does demonstrate a weakness in competition. You did well, if the goal was to sort out who was likely to learn accounting well versus those who were not.

    But at the end of the day it sounds like you failed to really innovate if the goal is to actually have more people learn accounting. Well that’s a bit harsh, you did observe that instead of wasting time teaching those who already knew it, you could actually get more people to learn by hitting the agriculture students with special attention. This observation might be helpful if expanded upon…maybe even a course ‘accounting for agriculture majors’ might be merited.

    But I could see how this competition system could end up being destructive. If you continued you might have simply gotten really good at pawning off the bad students on teachers with less political power or less savy in gaming the system. You would have built up your reputation as a star teacher but ultimately did nothing for actual education that all the other teachers weren’t already doing.

  21. ” She had a way of making things easy as pie- if you listened to her- but also with high expectations.”

    This is so characteristic of teachers who really know their subject.

    Yeas ago, I owned ten acres on Vashon Island in Puget Sound. It’s an idyllic place and has 10,000 residents on the island. Unlike Bainbridge, it has no bridge,. The only access is by ferry. It has its own high school and I had some fantasies of teaching biology in the high school after I retired there. Then I inquired about teaching requirements. Knowing the subject was not enough. I gave up the idea and eventually sold the property.

  22. Boonton –

    These are reasonable observations. The nature of accounting, as actually practiced, is ruthless. Firms hire workers right out of school and 95% are discarded or quit within 5 years. I was on the accounting track, since I was a TA, and I was absorbing the ethos of the department, which is that merit matters and that if you didn’t like it, get out.

    I also never aspired to be a teacher of accounting, although I expect I’d be quite good relative to other teachers in this genre because I have a higher EQ than most accountants and good speaking skills. If you saw the typical professor or TA that I had you’d be amazed at the very low quality of teaching that was the norm. That doesn’t mean people didn’t learn, because you had to figure out the material and beat the guy next to you with a better score, but the teachers were mostly indifferent to student outcomes and teaching was not highly regarded.

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