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180. Becoming an Educator w/ Dr. Alaina Talboy

You’re in graduate school, so you’re probably pretty smart. You’ve learned a lot of material over the years, and managed to apply that knowledge in tests, papers, and projects.

But ‘knowing a lot’ doesn’t mean you’re ready to teach others. Becoming an educator takes time, dedication and attention.

This week, we talk with Dr. Alaina Talboy about the skill of teaching others, and how you can apply that in careers outside the classroom.

We’re joined once again by Dr. Alaina Talboy, author of What I Wish I Knew: A Field Guide for Thriving in Graduate Studies. We last talked with her about why you should never refer to yourself as a ‘graduate student‘, and how to find teaching opportunities during your graduate training.

This week, we look more closely at the philosophy of education, and how you can develop your personal teaching style.

Develop Your Teaching Style

Looking back on her first teaching experience, Dr. Talboy recognizes she was not ready for the classroom.

“When I went into to teach my first session, I sucked at public speaking,” she recalls.

“I read from the slides, I was inflexible, and I didn’t really know what it meant to be an educator. And I will fully own that I was atrocious as a teacher that first year. I had a lot of issues I had to work through.”

Thankfully, she recognized the need for improvement. She sought out mentors who could help, and started to think carefully about her own unique teaching philosophy.

“I had a conversation with my teaching advisor and asked: ‘Does this get easier’? Because I was worried it would never get easier. And I would never really get an understanding of what it meant to be an educator.”

Her mentor’s response shaped Dr. Talboy’s approach. “She told me, ‘Think about the professors that you really like: what is it that you liked about them? And then at the same time, think about the professors you hated and what did you hate about their classes?”

That reflection led to a motivating insight: “I realized I was doing the stuff that I hated!” she says. It came from a place of fear and inexperience, but no matter the source, it was hindering her ability to reach her students.

So she started to think once again about those classes and professors that she admired. What were they doing that was so engaging? Was it just interesting subject matter? A good sense of humor? Their oratory skills?

Over the next weeks and months, Dr. Talboy began to emulate her best professors – modeling her teaching on theirs. She ‘tried on’ their styles, and found out which ones fit.

She learned that she didn’t have the comedic timing to be like her ‘funny’ professors, but she did have a passion for neuroscience and ‘geeking out’ that could draw students into her enthusiasm.

“And that is the way that I find I am actually connecting with my students because I get very passionate,” she says. “I get very animated. I come up with some really cool ideas to present this really complicated information. And that’s because I love the topic so much.”

Ignore the Critics

Improving as an educator means soliciting feedback. Dr. Talboy recommends asking a teaching mentor or some grad-school peers to sit in on one of your lectures. As practitioners themselves, they can offer helpful feedback to improve your classroom performance.

But, she warns, be very careful about reading student evaluations!

When asked how to process this end-of-semester feedback, she didn’t hesitate to say “Oh, throw ’em away!”

And she was only half kidding. Student evaluations can be full of irrelevant or even downright hurtful messages that you may be better off not seeing.

“This is particularly relevant for women and particularly relevant for women of color,” she begins. “So I will not sugarcoat this: you will get some terrible student evaluations that are based on your appearance, your manner of dress, how you talk to people and all of the things that your male counterparts likely will not hear about and have nothing to do with your teaching.”

Rather than absorbing these slings and arrows, she recommends having a peer read through the evaluations for you to compile any constructive feedback.

This way, you’ll get to learn about ways to improve the course, without internalizing insults about your wardrobe, voice, or body.

You CAN Take It With You

Finally, we talk about all the transferrable skills you gain while teaching, and how those will be valuable even if you don’t end up taking a job as a professor.

“This is something that really catches students by surprise,” Dr. Talboy recalls, “I am still an educator every day. I still educate people every single day. And the thing is, as an educator in the University, you are teaching in front of a lecture. You have one -on-one individual meetings. You have study groups. You are being an educator in a variety of situations with a variety of people that requires you to modify and change your message three or four times over to convey the exact same meaning.”

“And I will tell you, I do this every single day in industry”

The transferable skill, she says, is translation.

“The skill that I got from being an educator is the ability to translate really complicated information to a variety of audiences. So it still lands and it still sticks in their head. And that is such a valuable skill that I can’t put a price on it.”

And of course, the practice of teaching isn’t limited to communicating complex messages. An educator is also learning project management, people management, time management, mediation, creativity, enthusiasm, and more.

They’re all life skills that apply both in and out of the classroom. So why not build these skills as part of your graduate training and use them over the rest of your career!

To connect with Dr. Talboy, you can find her on Twitter, or schedule a coffee chat on her website!

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