An impassioned and unfit-for-purpose first draft of the teaching statement I will eventually produce, in lieu of the December meme for today - the story about dragons I was intending to tell you is a little too sore, after everything else that's happened, but I will share it tomorrow. Instead, this: which I think still understates exactly how deep is my conviction that teaching constitutes a mental health intervention with the potential to be life-saving. I have no idea how to communicate the strength of this belief while being appropriately professional; and I'll leave it for another day.
This is the most important work I will ever do.
I am trans; I am queer; I am autistic; I am disabled; I am mentally ill. I am an abuse survivor; I have PTSD; and teaching is the most important work I will ever do.
The personal is political: through existing, I show my students that they, too, can exist; that they, too, can excel. Survival is, for many of us, exhausting.
It is vital to teach compassionately.
I have been in counselling since 2006, one way or another; I have spent a lot of time learning how peer support and active listening can be employed to help vulnerable people learn about themselves. I have volunteered in health education since 2010; and in open-source development, including mentoring people who had never previously coded, since 2011. Between these roles, I've carried out peer education in subjects ranging from coding via chemistry to sociology and diversity.
Over and over, I have learned how important it is to enable empowerment: to give people the information they need to make their own choices; to support exploration and curiosity; to encourage taking risks. Science is a fundamentally creative endeavour: students who have been told that there are true, unchangeable answers are ill-equipped to trust that their questions aren't ridiculous or trivial; and this is intensified in those who have been subject to trauma, taught that their best chances of – yes – survival lie in not taking up space, not drawing attention, not being visible.
At its core, my teaching rests on the assumption that students – particularly at this level – want to learn; and that the best way to help them is to approach them compassionately, building confidence. In terms of small-group teaching, this is encapsulated in the concept of active listening: reflecting the student's words to determine whether their question, issue or problem has been correctly understood; leading to an answer, rather than handing it over; and establishing what kind of feedback the student desires, where possible. In particular, when demonstrating Introduction to Programming, I have found that students are extremely receptive to being asked what level of feedback they would like: when offered the choice of being congratulated on having written code that works, and of discussing how it might be improved, students who have had their confidence bolstered via (well-deserved!) praise are more likely to feel able to engage with constructive criticism, even at five o'clock on a Thursday afternoon.
Importantly, my focus is not on correct answers but on the acquisition of skills: through listening carefully, including to concerns that remain implicit, I work to help students towards confidence in their ability to learn, to problem-solve, and to acquire and apply new knowledge and tools. I emphasise that making mistakes is part of learning – that real programmers mess up, read error messages, and step through a sequence of actions designed to help them diagnose and fix the fault. Thus any student who writes buggy code, and fixes it, rather than demonstrating that they are incompetent, has demonstrated that they are a real programmer. This reframing – through acknowledgment that experts are not infallible, and thus demystification – is absolutely necessary to developing the belief that, though themselves infallible, my students can also attain expertise and competence.
The quality of confidence is, of course, difficult to measure: self-reports are readily skewed, via internal mechanisms (e.g. the Dunning-Kruger effect) and external pressures (e.g. stereotype threat). Nonetheless it is predicted that increased confidence fostered by compassionate teaching will result in increased (testable) competence: and thus a research project is born.