Why Good Teachers Are Like Pokémon

I can almost remember the very first class I was responsible for. It was a college-level physics lab, and I was a graduate teaching assistant. It was both fun and weird. I wasn’t much older than the students, but there I was, in charge of it all. That was a long time ago.

In the years since, I’ve changed the way I approach science education (though sometimes I go back to habits and methods from that first course). In fact, I think educators are sort of like Pokémon: We evolve to different levels and gain different powers (sadly, we look different too). In my experience, there are three levels in the development of a teacher.

Level 1: Spokesperson

This is where just about everyone starts. As a graduate TA, I pretty much just took the material that was provided and passed it along to the class. If there was a lab manual, I stuck to the manual. For a lecture course, it meant following the order of topics in the textbook. If a publisher produced a set of PowerPoint notes, I’d use that.

At this level the instructor is really just a mouthpiece. They take what the author says and repeat it to the students. It’s sort of like Sigourney Weaver in Galaxy Quest (a movie you need to watch). Her only job on the starship is to take orders and repeat them to the computer. She would be a level 1 educator.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes you just have to be level 1. That’s life. This semester I picked up an astronomy course for non-science majors at the last minute. What do you do with a week to prepare? Yup, you download the PowerPoint slides. There are things I would have liked to change, but it’s not always possible. (Here are my reflections on that course, if you’re interested.)

Level 2: Content Master

When the textbook just isn’t good enough, you need to evolve to the next level as a content creator. Here, the instructor doesn’t just take what’s in the book. Now they change the material. How? Here are some hallmarks of a level 2 Poké-teacher:

  • Changing the order of topics (forces before kinematics in physics)
  • Tweaking equations—e.g., writing v1 for initial velocity instead of vi
  • Complaining about notation. Older textbooks show vectors as variables in bold face. Now we draw an arrow over the variable.
  • Making a point to call g the “local gravitational field,” with units of newtons per kilogram, instead of the “acceleration due to gravity”
  • Creating original PowerPoint slides for a particular topic

These are just small examples. There are a thousand ways to make the material your own. You could write your own textbook. You could even forgo using a textbook and rely on your own notes and presentations.

Really, this is probably where most instructors live—everyone likes to customize their courses, even if it’s just a little bit. But more advanced teachers, with a solid mastery of the content, start to have their own ideas about the presentation of topics.

Level 3: Enlightened Education

At some point, you start to figure some things out. You realize that no matter how clearly you present the material, many students still won’t get it. For educators on level 2, the reaction is to try to improve the content. There’s an assumption that if you could only make the perfect lecture, everyone would understand. It’s so simple.

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