My first experience with teaching felt a little bit like being thrown into cold water.  I had experienced many great teachers, having attending a small liberal arts college called Bard, but I had little idea how to go about doing it myself.  When I found myself as a teaching assistant for the introductory biology course at the University of Florida, where I did my masters work, I felt a strong need for guidance.  The course was an in-depth and detailed survey of biological diversity, teaching particulars of anatomy, taxonomy, and general biology to would-be doctors and veterinarians.  I had received broad training in the material at Bard, but I had not had experience in some of the course material before.  Thus, I attended several lab sections from other TA’s in order to experience different teaching perspectives and ideas.  I wanted to know what exactly was I supposed to be teaching the students?  My experience as an observer was very varied.  Some TA’s were really dynamic, focusing on larger themes to help students organize the material, while some sat and read newspapers while the students in his section and I struggled with the material.  I realized that I would not flourish as a teacher without more experience with both the course material and with teaching.  Without formal training, I wasn’t sure how to pick out specific elements that made certain teachers good.  However, this first experience started me on a journey toward figuring out what makes a good teacher.  My subsequent experiences with teaching, mentorship, and training in pedagogical techniques have all helped me to better understand some elements of good teaching.

            I have always valued sharing my passions with other people.  This drove me to find more opportunities to teach.  While working on my Masters in Monteverde, Costa Rica, I did a couple of demonstrations at local schools, showing students butterflies I was rearing, and explaining a bit about their biology (and about insect biology in general).  My passion for the material helped me feel more comfortable with teaching—even though I still had no formal training in effective teaching, I learned that passion can excite people to question and see the world around them in a different way.  

            When I came to Duke University for Ph.D. work, I attended a week-long teacher training prior to my first semester.  This training opened my eyes to pedagogical theory—I realized just how much some people thought about and worked on being good teachers.  I had a great time with the intensive discussions, readings, and activities.  Earlier, I had thought that people tended to learn more from discussions and first-hand experience with material than through lectures (at least, non-interactive ones), but it was nice to formally confirm this, and to thoroughly discuss alternatives—ways to make learning more interactive.  In addition, I became more determined to teach by asking students questions, rather than by giving them answers (to help them think about the context, and potentially help guide them towards figuring out the answer for themselves).  I finished feeling much more confident about teaching in general.  I still felt like I wanted more training in teaching, so I took the seminar in teaching (before it formally became a course), which helped my thinking about teaching considerably.  In addition to training teaching methods, the seminar gave me the opportunity to interact with some faculty at nearby, smaller universities.  Here, I met Lisa Carloye, a professor at Elon University.  Because I was excited her teaching ideas, I decided to pursue a mentorship with her.

            Through my mentorship with Lisa, I had my first opportunity to give a formal lecture to a class, introducing the vertebrate nervous system.  In addition, I learned in-depth about interactive learning, when Lisa and I received a Duke University Graduate Student Teaching Mini-grant to design and teach an intensive course on Insect Biology at Elon University during January term, 2003.  We used the case-study method as a way of helping students to understand the material, with no more than one lecture during the course.  We co-designed the course syllabus, topics, and major projects, including team rearing of insects, where each team was responsible for learning about and periodically presenting information to the class about physiology, behavior, and ecology of the insects they reared.  In addition, the two case studies I designed with input and help from Lisa, and implemented during the course (one using mutualisms involving ants to teach about mutualisms and their ubiquity, and one using gypsy moths to teach students about complexities of insect population biology) helped me to better understand different ways to run class activities, and to help students get first-hand experience with course material (e.g., by rearing insects).

            At Duke, I have learned so much from watching and working with professors teaching courses, including Alec Motten, Will Wilson, and Bill Morris.  I have worked as a TA for diverse courses here—sometimes teaching more familiar material (e.g., Ecology); sometimes teaching relatively unfamiliar material (e.g. Physiology).  Over the years, I took opportunities to re-write course material for Ecology and for Organismal Evolution.  During the Spring of 2003, I gave my first lecture (on insects) to a class of over 150 people.  This, along with previous experiences, helped to give me enough confidence to try teaching part time at Guilford College, where I designed and taught an introductory botany class to continuing education students.  This was the most tremendous and trying learning experience of my career thus far. 

            As a teacher at Guilford, I learned several things about teaching that I think I could only have learned by doing it (and this highlights the importance of experiential learning!).  First, I learned to be flexible, and try different things to help students learn the material.  I gave lectures during 2.5-hour periods, so I made sure to not only take a 10-minute break in the middle, but also to take many “breaks” throughout the lecture, in the form of questions I asked students, giving them a few minutes each time to discuss potential answers with their neighbors before presenting their answers to me, after which I presented my own answers that incorporated student responses.  On quizzes and exams (covering lecture and lab material rather than the book), I tried giving several different types of questions, including multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, short answer, and short essay.  Some of my students were better auditory learners, and some were better visual learners, so eventually I tried reading quiz questions aloud in addition to letting students read them on their own.  I also had students make a plant/leaf collection for a quiz grade.  In labs, I carted several plants each week from the Duke greenhouse teaching collection, so that students would be able to see for themselves a diverse array of plants and plant adaptations that they might never see otherwise, including plants from each of the major plant divisions, as well as aquatic plants, carnivorous plants, tropical plants, desert plants, etc. 

            Second, I set very high expectations of the students—perhaps too high, given the level of education many of the students had had prior to this class (several of them had had no previous science classes).  Thus, I had to prioritize which of my high expectations were most important—what were the fundamental things I wanted students to leave having learned?  I only loosely adhered to my original policies regarding formatting of assignments and the late-policies, in favor of making sure their assignments clearly demonstrated that they understood the basics of the material, and that they were able to process the information, going beyond just repeating information I’d given them in class. 

Third, I needed to really distill the ideas I hoped to convey in the course.  I tried to very clearly transition between topics, stressing the form and function of plants in a phylogenetic context.  I also stressed the scientific method, that what they were learning was not just isolated facts.  I found that this was extremely challenging for me, especially at first, when I had to give two lectures covering several different topics that would serve as background for future lectures.  These lectures probably should have been several lectures each.  In addition, I found that the book I had chosen did not seem to prioritize the information in its chapters.  Thus, I made my lectures available on the web, along with all quizzes and assignments.  Similarly, I ended up designing my own labs, after finding that the lab manual I had ordered focused too much on minutia and terminology, without helping students to fit the material into a larger framework.  I hoped that in all aspects of the class, I could help students to process the material rather than focus on memorizing seemingly disconnected bits of information.

Fourth, I learned that the internet is essential for being available to students, especially when teaching a class on a campus an hour away from where I live.  Because I only made it to campus once a week (the day I taught class), I made sure to do a few things to stay available, including checking email frequently and answering student questions promptly, putting all lecture material, assignments, etc. up on the web, and arriving early (or staying late) so I had time to meet with students before (or after) class if they wanted.  Normally, I hold office hours by appointment, because students have very rarely come to regularly scheduled office hours I have set up in the past.  I also make it clear to students that I am readily available to answer questions and set up appointments by email. 

            I feel like I have come full circle, course-wise.  At this point, I have taught a biodiversity course four times: once in Florida, and three times at Duke (either 26A or 26B).  Not only do I now feel much more comfortable with the material in the class than I did when I first taught in Gainesville, but I also feel like I know more about my role as a teacher: how to convey material to students, how to help keep students learning more actively, and how to help students put the material into a conceptual framework.  I do feel much more comfortable with teaching now, working with students one-on-one, in smaller lectures, labs and other inquiry-based activities, and to a lesser degree with small group discussions and large lecture classes.  I am still working to improve myself as a teacher, to incorporate comments from student evaluations, to try new techniques, and simply to gain more experience in the practice of teaching.