Learning to Teach, Teaching to Learn

Embracing opportunities to teach at MIT
JUL 2019
Casey
E.
Technology and Policy Program

I love helping people learn.

I first got a taste of this at the military academy where I completed my undergraduate degree. I taught new cadets and new Airmen about marching and other aspects of being in the military. Later, I worked an obstacle course where I had to teach safety and proper obstacle completion technique. It was one of the few activities where I found myself smiling while doing it.

Fast forward to my first year of grad school.

In the fall, all of MIT was full of posters with elephants highlighting the opportunity to teach a class about ANYTHING you wanted to high schoolers. Sounded cool to me! The event, called Splash, is hosted every year by the Education Studies Program (ESP) at MIT. I had a great time doing it. I taught policy development for sports and gender topics, which is a special interest of mine, as I have long been confused by the disparities in sports opportunities for non-males. The students impressed me with their thoughtfulness, which made it especially fun, as for me, any opportunity to discuss ways to make the world function more… equitably… is hugely engaging.

When spring came around, ESP put up posters with a jellyfish, advertising the same opportunity to teach anything you wanted, but for middle schoolers. This program is also held every year and is called Spark. Teaching aside, the poster had my favorite animal on it, so I had to participate. I had even more fun the second time around. I knew more of what I was doing and felt more organized, even if the students were a touch more unruly.

Around the same time as I was signing up to teach Spark, I saw an email asking for volunteers for the English as a Second Language (ESL) program at MIT. I have a passion for languages, but I didn't feel qualified for the position. Fortunately, the ad also said, “no experience required, just a good command of English and an interest in helping individuals whose first language is not English.” Even if you have no teaching experience, and English is not your first (or even second) language, you can tutor! So I signed up.

The ESL program was established ten years ago by dedicated and thoughtful staff members at MIT. It offers one-hour English "paid-leave" style tutoring sessions during work hours for MIT staff. Each student is assigned a tutor that they meet with once a week. I can't commit that regularly, but I act instead as a substitute for the 11pm–midnight shift. Most of our students are custodial and maintenance workers. One student is a former military member herself, and though she is not from the U.S. military, we were able to exchange stories about training and military parachuting, which was really cool! But I've also met people living lives very different from my own, where I can't help but learn as much, if not more, than I'm teaching. For instance, I've learned about the price of bread in Poland and the specifics of the American citizenship test. Even when interacting with other teachers, from librarians to fellow students, I have learned more about myself and how to work with others. Teaching with ESL has been an incredibly rewarding experience.

I suppose I have always known that I enjoy learning, but now I know that I also love teaching. Maybe it is because, as I discovered, every interaction with a student is also a moment of learning. Or maybe there is something inherent in the exchange of knowledge that makes us more a part of humanity. As we experience more outside of ourselves, we become a part of something greater. Or maybe teaching is just the way of coming full circle in an academic environment: we learn to teach to learn to teach… and therefore pass the torch to those who come after us. Whatever the reason, I fully encourage you to find opportunities to teach at MIT. I am confident you'll have a good time and hopefully learn something along the way!