A back to school tip for aspiring teachers and academics

If you’re confused in school now, you can use that confusion to become a better teacher later. You can write detailed notes about what you’re confused about and and why. Doing this may help you to figure things out now, and it will definitely help you to teach well in the future.

Teaching is hard, and teaching beginners is often harder. Knowing a subject well isn’t the same as knowing how to teach it. Teachers need to be able to explain things in a way that will make sense to beginners. They also need to be able to figure out why students are getting confused, and find ways to help them understand. This is much easier said than done.

Right now, you’re probably confused about some things that will feel completely obvious in a year or two. Many things that are hard to master feel completely natural once you’ve learned them. It can be hard to understand why something that has come to feel completely natural to you is confusing to your students.

As a student, you’re likely confused about your subject; as a teacher, you are likely to be confused about your students. If you write down what you’re confused about as a student, you will be doing your future self a huge favor. The notes themselves may be helpful when you teach. Beyond that, writing notes about yourself as a student can help you to start thinking from a teaching perspective. The sooner you get into the habit of thinking about your subject with teaching in mind, the better off you’ll be in the long term.

Short version: If you’re confused in school, you can use your confusion to be a better teacher in the future. Consider writing down what you are confused about and why. In the future, you will have students who are confused. Understanding your own confusion now can help you to understand theirs later.

A method for understanding confusing lectures

Some teachers have a disorganized lecture style that’s difficult to follow.

One reason this can happen is if there’s like 5 things they want to talk about, but they don’t do it in an organized way. Like they keep moving from one topic to another, then back again.

For instance, in a class on vegetables, a teacher might talk about carrots, onions, peppers, celery, and for some reason, cows. They might jump around from one topic to another, saying things about each as they’re reminded of them. 

It can help to use a computer to take notes, make topic headings, and add to each topic as it is raised.

So it could look like this, in the hypothetical class about vegetables:

Teacher says: Carrots grow in the ground. Onions grow in the ground. Onions are delicious when you caramelize them. They’re good with steaks. So are peppers, even though they don’t grow in the ground. The other thing about carrots is that they are orange, and they are sweet and have more sugar than you’d think a vegetable would have. Cows like to eat vegetables. Celery needs to be washed before you eat it. So do carrots. Cows can eat vegetables without washing them. 

Carrots:

  • Grow in the ground
  • Orange
  • Sweet
  • have more sugar than you’d think
  • Need to be washed before you eat them

Onions

  • grow in the ground
  • delicious when you caramelize them
  • good with steaks

Peppers

  • Good with steaks
  • Don’t grow in the ground

Cows:

  • Like to eat vegetables
  • Don’t need to wash vegetables first

Celery

  • Needs to be washed before you eat it

You can do this with Word files, but I’ve found that it’s easier with outlining software. (I use OmniOutliner). The advantage to outlining software is that it’s really easy to drag things around if you change your mind about which topic they go in. You can also collapse topic headings when the topic seems to be over, then reopen them if it comes up again.

If you think more visually, a diagraming program might work well for you. Idea Sketch works reasonably well on iPad. This works well for following lectures, but notes taken this way can be harder to use later than more conventional notes. It’s also difficult to share notes taken in this format.