It is nearing the end of the year. For a small pawn in academia like myself, that means students are done with their lab courses and I’m done teaching them.
Instead, I get to spend weeks on end in my own lab and in the instrument room. Quietly running samples with hearing protection blocking the world out.
I really enjoy these quiet weeks before and after teaching. The autist in me revels in the solitary puzzle solving, and it occurs to me how much easier it would be to do the research part of my job if not for all those students all the time.
But I do realize this is not what the university is for.
A while back, someone posted on twitter asking how childless people went about creating a legacy. They were getting at an age where they started worrying about not leaving a mark on the world.
We are also childless. A state I fully intend to stay in unless we adopt. So I suppose this question is one we could give some thought as well.
I am lucky in many ways. I am lucky to have gotten an education for considerably cheaper than other countries. I am lucky to have been born in one of the safest countries on earth. I am lucky in that I have a mind which is easy to teach and which absorbs information like a sponge.
And the more I live and get to know other people from different backgrounds than myself, I realize that this is not something everyone can do or has access to.
But I did, and one way I can pay it forward is by teaching others as best I can. Not just in a teacher setting, or about the things I learned in school. But about everything. Sustainability, personal finance, gardening, writing, crafts. All are things that could be valuable to other people, and one way to leave a legacy is by teaching generously to those who want to learn.
But I must admit, there is also a piece of me which just revels in being alone. I’ve always been like that. A child who preferred reading books and solving jigsaw puzzles to running around in the field screeching with the other children.
I like to be alone. But a different part of me does realize that I cannot and should not live my whole life as a hermit in the woods. There needs to be a balance, or we wouldn’t have much of a society.
Even though it has been over a year since I taught my first lab, there is still something about teaching in a large group which wears me out. Perhaps it’s all the chemicals. Or the fact that I can’t see all my students at once because the lab is covered by fume hoods? Making sure over a dozen first year students don’t do something hazardous to themselves or their classmates is not exactly my idea of a relaxing evening.
Then again, when some leave notes in their lab journal thanking me for a great year, or you see progress in the students struggling the most – that is a rewarding feeling in and of itself too.
But if I’ve taught people outside the lab and at work, it is a whole different thing. Teaching one or two friends card weaving or some other craft is rewarding in a different way. Seeing their face light up when they get something. Seeing the confidence grow with their mastery of the skill.
I think that is a great way to build connection and foster a sense of achievement.
Imposter syndrome is something I think most of us struggle with from time to time. After all, who am I to assume the role of teacher? Who do I think I am?
The first time I had to teach a lab on my own I was mortified. That whole first semester I found myself unable to get any other work done on a lab day. I was far too busy feeling anxious and walking around on campus grounds to calm my nerves.
The first batch of reports came in. I was anxious about correcting them of course. Again, who was I to correct their work? What if I taught them something wrong and caused them to fail their exam?
But when I opened the first reports and started reading, a strange sort of relief flooded over me. These reports were so bad, that even I could help them improve.
I had to come to terms with just how long it had been since I started university, and how much I had learned and internalized since then. Things I took for granted. Things that had become obvious.
But they are far from obvious to everyone, and I think that is a healthy reminder. We have something to give. Even if we might not think so.
I do not mean that everyone can be a classroom teacher of course, that is a special skill I do not possess.
But everyone can teach someone something.
Just look at kindergartens. When there are age mixed groups, the older children will teach the younger children rudimentary life skills. They are just toddlers themselves, but they are already assuming the role of teacher.
We are all teacher and student in different areas of our lives. I think it is important to keep a firm grip of both roles as we age, and might feel like we’ve learned what there is to know.
The joy of helping someone understand and master something can be just as important as feeling that joy of mastery ourselves. And even to an autist like me, who often find myself looking at things a bit askew, I think it is obvious that teaching (and being taught) is an essential part of the human experience.