Scattered Thoughts: My Lessons Learned on Teaching

4 minute read


I have been teaching at the university level for quite some time and I cherished every moment of my experience. When it comes to teaching, I wholeheartedly put my efforts in creating and delivering interesting tutorials/lectures. As an educator, I see myself as a pacemaker, enabling my students to excel—academically or somewhere else. Teaching also requires a completely different feat—you need to be very articulate, concise in your wording, and have the ability to view a concept in different ways. These things are kind of expected when I signed up to teach, but not the following until I became an instructor…

  1. Designing the course syllabus: Great, we plan to give them few assignments, few quizzes, a midterm and a final. We are done right? No, not really. While we want to give the students sufficient amount of work and feedback to evaluate how they are performing, welcome COVID-19 where both the students and teachers are under extra stress. Another aspect is actually the amount of time our TAs are able to put in. Who is going to design the assignment/exercises? The solutions? For some courses we might even have programming and written exercises. In that case, what about automarker? It is inevitable that either the TAs or the instructor will put in enormous amount of hours designing these—let’s just say we will work more than we are told.
  2. Replying emails… Hello?: One thing I learned is that trying to answer all the emails is a losing battle. I thought it was a joke until I started teaching. Emails come from the school administrators, students, other instructors, TAs, auditors, etc. My current approach is to prioritize specific emails—instructors > TAs > school administrators > students > auditors. As you can see, students is almost at the last even though our job is to help the students learn. In that case, what can we do to have more efficient/effective communications with the students? Piazza is a great way for your other students, who are ahead in the course to help out! Shoutout to them!
  3. Energy management and work-life balance: I taught the machine learning course (CSCC11) as an instructor while working a full-time position, not to mention that I was (still am) doing research on the side. While teaching is supposed to be a “contractor job”, the amount of effort I put in was similar to the full-time position, and this was with the help of my mentors Prof. Fleet and Prof. Estrada. To this day, I still admire how well my mentors can teach and publish papers at the same time. I tried but clearly it hurt my research output. At the same time, if they are handling this, I should be able to. This definitely put a lot of pressure on me but my solution was, just chill once a week—no reading emails, no working, touch nothing related to work nor research. Do what you enjoy such as Netflix, Youtube, reading, NBA, you name it. Having a day per week to reset my mind definitely improved my mental health.
  4. You take the lead: When you are the instructor, you are the leader—everyone is looking up to you to make the decision, to lead, and to prepare for the material. I guess I did an okay job but again the anxiety was real—how am I suppose to lead the group of undergrad students, my MSc and PhD TAs, and my colleagues? In terms of status, I definitely felt I was not qualified as a convincing leader—a MSc graduate being the instructor? In terms of experience, I had never been the “top” of the chain and I always had helped and insights from my boss. Nonetheless, this was eye opening and I felt a lot of indecisiveness in me, but at least I did it.

In conclusion, I spent a lot of my mental energy on the machine learning course, stressed a lot on creating a reasonable syllabus with “fun and exciting” lectures/tutorials/assignments/exam, stressed a lot on leading my amazing TAs and students, doubting my own ability to lead this course, and struggling to balance my life. Was it tough? Yes. Would I do it again? Most likely. The return is really high when you realize how many minds you are changing and shaping. I hope my students felt the same ¯\(ツ)