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SPIE Professional April 2007

From Student to Teacher

Many current students will soon be instructors themselves. Here is advice on how to make that transition smoother for all involved.

By Andres Diaz

You made it! You are done with your PhD and are now ready and very excited to start a promising career as an educator and a researcher. Your role has suddenly changed, and now you are the one doing the teaching. Here is some advice on making this transition, and my experience as an instructor in the Electrical Engineering Department at Penn State since finishing my PhD two years ago. I can say that although it has not always been easy, it has definitely been a very rewarding and enriching experience.
Care about Your Students
Caring about those you teach is perhaps what teaching is all about. It is not only about transferring some knowledge, but about creating an environment that is favorable for learning and encouraging to the student. Remember how much easier and pleasurable it was to take a class from someone who knew your name and who patiently answered any question you asked; someone who respected you as a person and made you feel important and unique, and who encouraged you to do your best?
When you become a teacher you will find yourself at the giving end, and it is in your best interest (and in your students' best interest) to care about those you teach. This attitude will allow you to treat each student with the utmost respect, to have the patience to answer the same question 10 times, to recognize the potential of your students, and to trust them. They will instinctively know if you care about them and are not just repeating an endless litany of boring pieces of information. Furthermore they will respect you and occasionally they will even let you know what a good job you are doing.
Be Responsible and Prepare
Part of caring about those you teach is preparing and organizing your course in a logical way that is easy to present and to digest. Remember the course is about them, not about you. Prepare as much as you can (especially when giving a course for the first time), and consider the level of the course you will be teaching.
From my experience, entry-level college courses usually need to be very well organized and structured in order to appeal to and be understood by an audience with varying levels of preparation. On the opposite end, senior and graduate level courses can be more open ended, with students more prepared (and willing) to tackle problems on their own. Being organized really pays off when teaching a course for a second or third time. It will be easier to reference and change the material, build upon previous exams, improve the quality of the homework, and add semester-long projects, for example.
Don't Take it Too Seriously
Teaching means putting on a show every day. No matter how prepared you are, it is just a matter of time before something unexpected will happen. I have had my laptop freeze just when I was starting to give a presentation, or have discovered the overhead projector is not working in the middle of the class period. Take these things in stride. Feeling nervous when you teach is normal; I know I still do when I walk into a classroom. Have fun while you teach, while you interact with students, and even when doing the unavoidable grading, which can be a challenge.
Enjoying teaching not only helps me feel passionate about it, but more importantly it encourages students to keep their interest in the subject matter, to learn more, and to give more. By not taking things too seriously I am also giving myself permission to make mistakes and show my students that like them I am also human, with my own qualities and shortcomings. It makes me focus more on the message I am transmitting and worry less about what students think of me.
This mindset also helps me to accept a certain degree of subjectivity in the course, to put in perspective any feedback I get from my students, and to recognize there is a limited amount of time I can actually spend on my teaching duties. It also allows me to be flexible and "experiment" a bit in class by trying out new things that may not always work.
Ask for Help
When I first started teaching I did not want to look like the new guy who had to be told what to do, and I tried to do everything myself. My advice is to get over that feeling and ask for help.
Talk to the departmental course coordinator and to previous instructors of the courses you will be teaching. They will help you with material, previous syllabi, online resources, tips, etc. You will be showing you are interested and will also be doing very important networking with your colleagues. Improve your teaching and presentation skills and find out what courses on teaching are offered by your college or university. These are often offered to new faculty, and you may even be able to take some as a graduate teaching assistant.
These courses will save you time by giving you tips on creating a syllabus, structuring a class, using different teaching styles to foster learning, employing assessment strategies, obtaining feedback, etc., and will make you aware of specific tools and resources your institution may have.
You may also want to check useful resources when trying to balance the different responsibilities you will have, such as teaching, research, service, departmental duties, and your own personal and family life. Find out what related work/life programs are offered by your office of human resources, join a gym, start to meditate, find a hobby, or simply spend some quiet time alone. These are ways I have found that reduce my stress levels and increase my focus and productivity. Although I sometimes struggle to put everything together, I believe the effort is worth it.
If you are considering going into academia, teaching may be one of the most rewarding activities you will encounter. I have learned to enjoy it, to value the interaction with those I teach, to learn from them, and to be thankful about this opportunity to be of service to my community.

Teaching Resources
W. J. McKeachie. McKeachies Teaching Tips: strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. College Teaching Series. Houghton Mifflin. 11th Edition. 2002.
A list of Centers for Teaching Excellence is available on the website: www.cte.ku.edu/cteInfo/resources/websites.shtml.
Tomorrows-Professor mailing list, run by Richard M. Reis, PhD from Stanford University, is a weekly e-newsletter with articles on education. Subscribe at mailman.stanford.edu/mailman/listinfo/tomorrows-professor.

Andres Diaz

Andres Diaz received BS degrees in physics and electrical engineering from the National University of Colombia and Javeriana University, Colombia, an MS degree in physics from the National University of Colombia, and MS and PhD degrees in electrical engineering from The Pennsylvania State University. He is currently an instructor and researcher at Penn State and the faculty advisor for the Penn State SPIE Student Chapter.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4200704.11