satisfice-(v.) A decision making strategy that attempts to meet criteria for adequacy, rather than identify the optimal outcome.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

On being a TA for CS61A

Teaching the introduction to a Computer Science course at UC Berkeley (CS61A) was the hardest thing that I have ever done. Imagine the stress of being the main source of learning for 60+ students in an impossibly competitive environment while still balancing a full course-load, extra curriculars, and another job. Imagine the fear you get knowing that you are the first exposure to the CS department for most of these students. And, remember every single article you've read about inequality in tech, every single stereotype you've seen about female engineers, every time you heard "you don't look like a CS major", and remember that you may or may not mess things up for women in tech everywhere if you fail here.

I didn't think about any of these things as a student. I didn't even consider the fact that I could be affecting my instructor more than they could ever affect me. Maybe I was just paranoid about teaching. Maybe I was over-thinking things and the students didn't really care as much as I thought they did.

I was concerned about all of these things because I cared. I cared a lot. I cared so much that my first time teaching, I worked at least 80 hours a week for that summer semester even though I was only going to be paid for 40 hours a week.

And sometimes, you work really hard and you're still not appreciated for it. I held 1-on-1's with my students at the beginning of the semester and at the end of the semester. I checked in with each student individually at every single lab I taught to personally ask how they were doing to give them an opportunity to ask questions privately or talk about whatever they wanted to during that time. I made it very clear that I could be reached anytime via email and if anyone ever asked for extra time to meet with them and help them go over an exam or talk about improving study habits, I made sure I made time to meet with them. I tried to do everything I could to make the course accessible for any student who was willing to give me their best effort.

Still, I always received feedback from 1-2 students every semester mentioning that I could have spent more time supporting the students with an extra midterm review or that I could have been more accessible. And while I agree that every teacher could do more for their students, the fact that I felt like I was giving my heart and soul to my sections and that it still wasn't enough for even 1 student was disheartening. I learned from teaching that when you're doing something so passionately that you prioritize it over everything else in your life, including your own personal well-being, you become a lot more sensitive to how others respond to that passion. And I learned that like all other things in life, you can't possibly expect to please every single person you cross paths with. And really, it's okay because if you're truly giving something your all, some people will see it and absorb it and grow because of it. I'm so thankful to see some of my students come back to me and tell me about their awesome internships at amazing tech companies. To see my students decide to lab assist or tutor or even become teaching assistants (I have two students TA'ing this semester!). To see my students decide to continue pursuing CS because they saw something that was worth it to pursue no matter what challenges they might face or were facing at the time (CS is hard). To have had even the slightest positive affect on their lives is wonderful beyond what words could explain.

I'm so thankful for the opportunity I had because all of you taught me more than I ever thought I would learn from CS61A.


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