On Teaching Katie
September 17, 2017
Confession: I haven’t taught a course yet. In class, when everyone else telling stories about the ways they teach and how they’ve helped their students, I can only stay quiet because I don’t have this experience. However, during the last class, we spoke about a student’s PI who no longer teaches courses but instead teaches through mentoring his students. It made me think about how I may not have experience as a teaching assistant, but I do have experience mentoring undergraduates in my lab. I thought about one person in particular, Katie, who joined our lab last year and how I got the chance to mentor her in working in our lab.
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t particularly enthused to be mentoring undergraduates in Spring 2017. I was taking three classes, doing my own research, dealing with my own personal life, and was now responsible of teaching two people how to work in a lab when I felt I was still learning myself. It was hard because I also didn’t know their level of interest and I just didn’t know how to teach in general. I started off with teaching basics and things I had wished I was taught when I first started working. I tried to make sure I wasn’t talking down to them and treated them with respect, because I knew that when working in a lab, confidence in yourself was key. I wanted to instill this into them. However, I wasn’t a trained teacher. While teaching, I would just spout off random, but imporantant, things they need to know and consider while working in a lab. Not very elegantly and I probably spoke very quickly when talking as well, as I usually do. I was just talking to talk, to be honest. However, I thought it was in one ear, out the other, that no one really cared to listen to what I was saying. However, I soon realized that some one was actually listening to me.
Watching Katie work, I realized she was mindful and actively thinking while working. Mistakes were acknowledged and corrected with input from myself. Little things I had mentioned, such as using water to clean up media spills in the biosafety cabinet, actually got through to her. However, there is one incident that I think about when I think about how far she much she has grown and how much she has learned.
I would watch Katie when I could and would still continue spouting off random things about cell culture. I mentioned once before that there were two different types of flasks: non-treated and treated for adhesive cells. It was a minor comment, one I said pretty casually, thinking she wouldn’t have caught it or paid much attention to it. While this is important to take into consideration when doing cell culture, I just wasn’t sure anyone else cared.
On this particular day, Katie was working by herself. She had gotten to a point where she no longer needed me hovering over her, watching her every move. However, I always made myself available via messaging for any questions. To my surprise, I received a message asking about which flask to use, because she looked on the package of the shelf that we keep our flasks on and realized that the flasks were for adhesive cells. We didn’t work with adhesive cells so she double checked with me to ask where she could get the correct flasks. It was this incident that I realized that she was actively listening to what I was teaching her and was not only working on autopilot, but present in her learning and her work.
While reading Langer’s piece on mindful learning, I realized that is exactly what Katie was doing while I was teaching her. Langer defines mindful learning as “drawing novel distinctions” which leads to “greater sensitivity to context and perspective…” In this particular incident, she was perceptive to the context and situation she was in and could adequately adapt. Langer writes “Mindfulness results in an increase in competence; a decrease in accidents; an increase in memory, creativity, and postive affect…” and I have seen this all in Katie. She works in the lab frequently without me and rarely makes mistakes. When mistakes or accidents do occur, she has the skills to figure out how to correct them. She has confidence in herself and her work and no longer needs to refer to me or her notes.
Working with Katie never ceases to amaze me and this piece made me appreciate her all the more. Actually having the chance to watch someone utilize these mindful learning techniques helped me realize how strong it really is. I’m not sure how she came about mindfulness but I’m now concious of being focused on “how [I] teach” versus “what [I] teach” in the hopes of other students of mine practicing mindful learning as well. So while I don’t have experience teaching a class yet, I have had the amazing experience teaching Katie.