When the Teacher Becomes the Student

Don’t worry, this isn’t any sort of New Age, zen-like post about teaching. It’s literally about when a teacher (me) becomes a student (me, again).

This semester I am teaching four sections of Introductory Financial Accounting, the bane of many students’ existence.

I tell them that the course is challenging; for many of them it may be the most difficult course they take in their four years at Villanova. I tell them that it may be the first time in their academic careers that they need to go to a tutor for help. I tell them it has one of the highest drop rates among business courses. Hopefully, I’ve got their attention.

But at the same time, I tell them are all fully capable of doing well; if they are at Villanova, they have shown that they can succeed academically. Many students are worried about how much math is in accounting; I tell them that of all the business disciplines, accounting has just about the most basic math requirements, at least certainly for this intro course. If they can add, subtract, multiply, and divide, then the math will not be an issue.

I then tell them that the secret to doing well in the course is simply practice, practice, practice. Accounting is often referred to as the language of business, and so it’s like learning any new language, it takes practice, lots of practice.

I hope the students take to heart the advice I offered them.

I then realized, several hours later, that I need to take my own advice.

I am taking a course in Regression Analysis this semester, and tonight was the first night of class. After the teacher introduced herself, we went around the room and introduced ourselves. I mentioned that I had taken a course in Regression before, but that was about 35 years ago. As soon as I said it, I realized that about 90% of the people in the room, including the teacher (at least that’s my guess), weren’t even born 35 years ago!

But I was OK with the age thing since I’ve experienced being the oldest student in the classroom for a few years now.

The problem arose once class started. At one point, I got lost in the middle of the lecture, and I had trouble recovering. Looking at a board full of equations, and not really knowing what is going on or what they mean, is not a pleasant feeling. It literally looked like a foreign language.

It was then that it struck me that this must be how some of my students feel. When I’m teaching, everything I say sounds perfectly clear and logical and simple, to me at least. And I’m sure that was the same way with my stat teacher tonight (and it seemed to be pretty simple for most of the students in the class as well. One student raised his hand and said, “Shouldn’t there be a parenthesis after X?” Another student raised her hand and asked why some value wasn’t squared. I was still trying to copy what the teacher had written on the board a couple of minutes ago – forget about looking for mistakes or actually absorbing what anything I was writing down meant.)

And so it looks like if I want to do well in this course, I am going to have practice what I preach. It looks like this stuff is not going to come to me naturally; it’s going to take practice, practice, practice.

There’s nothing new with such an insight; we’ve all been told how important it is to practice if we want to get good at something. But sometimes we need a reminder of that, particularly when we take for granted how simple something seems after we’ve been doing it for a long time, and we don’t understand why it’s taking so long for a new person to learn such a basic task.

The best way to remind yourself of the value of practice is to try something new, to become a student again, and commit to the practice needed to succeed at that new task. Doing so also gives us more empathy when trying to teach others something that we can do in our sleep.

So I’m keeping my fingers crossed that my words of advice to my students work for me as well. I’ll keep you posted.

P.S. If you don’t know what the image is at the top of the page, welcome to the club. That’s a picture of just one page of notes (out of eight) that I took tonight. Don’t ask me to explain what it all means, at least not yet…


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