Why Teach?

Retired Teachers Look to Their Former Students With Pride

One of a series of occasional excerpts from "What Good Teachers Say About Teaching," a collection of essays from 83 of the winners of Berkeley's Distinguished Teaching Award.

Why teach?

My field has many interesting opportunities outside of academia. So this is a question many new PhDs ask themselves. I found my answer in the book "Working," by Studs Terkel, which contains frank assessments about how people feel about their jobs.

Looking back on their careers, many researchers felt their now-antiquated technical achievements seemed shallow. On the other hand, retired teachers took pride in the success of their former students, and believed they made a difference in their lives.

Once I tried teaching, I was hooked. Seeing the faces of students brighten when they conquer difficult concepts and hearing applause at the end of the term are powerful narcotics, and they are difficult to resist. I have seen many former Berkeley students, doubtful about academic careers, give teaching a try and quickly become addicted.

The classroom is our stage; the most significant advice I received was from a master teacher in computer science.

He said the three most important steps in preparing a lecture are: (1) preparation, (2) preparation and (3) preparation.

Preparation enables the teacher to cover all the salient points, yet allow student questions to drive the direction of the lecture. This gives the students the feeling they have participated in a remarkably coherent yet spontaneous lecture.

In addition to being prepared, this master teacher has the three other characteristics I see in the best teachers: thorough knowledge of the material, enthusiasm for the subject and a sense of humor.

I prepare classes quite differently for undergraduates and graduate students. Many undergrads have a thirst for good grades rather than a thirst for new knowledge, so my challenge is to harness the former to achieve the latter. I try to take advantage of the time outside of the classroom with interesting homework assignments, trying desperately to balance what is learned versus the time needed to complete the assignment. Whenever possible, I give them hands-on access to software and hardware used in the real world, using this Chinese proverb as my guide: "I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand."

Graduate students do have that thirst for new knowledge. I treat them as young colleagues, intellectual equals who just need some experience before they become my betters. In graduate courses, I try to let them experience "research-in-the-small," taking a small research problem from its inception through investigation and presentation. Graduate students are weakest at selecting problems and at time management, so I help them with a list of suggested research problems and then meet with them every few weeks to monitor progress and suggest midcourse corrections. In the last week of classes each group gives me and the teaching assistant a formal half-hour presentation outside of class, with term reports due a week later. I then pick a sampling of the best projects for students to present to their classmates. Recently a colleague tried an even better idea: He created a "poster session" during one of the final lectures, with each project summarized on a poster board and staffed by a member of the project. This allowed students to wander about the room and teach each other what they had learned.

Our goal in a single term is to give graduate students the experience of participating in a small research conference. A few have been lucky enough to have their term papers accepted at regular conferences but, more importantly, the course gives all students a chance to perform and present research and to understand its difficulties before embarking on their dissertation research.

Copies of "What Good Teachers Say About Teaching" are available free to the campus community and for $10 to the public from the Office of Educational Development, 642-6392, 403 Sproul Hall.


Copyright 1995, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
Comments? E-mail berkeleyan@pa.urel.berkeley.edu.