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Teaching Splash (and Overcoming the Impostor Syndrome) by Yuliya K. '18

guest post by Haley C. '18

Haley C. ‘18 is a sophomore living in East Campus and studying Course 6-2 (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science). They are also passionate about education. We bonded over several different teaching projects, most recently in 11.124 Introduction to Education. I loved hearing about Haley’s experience teaching Splash, a weekend for high school students to come to campus and learn a variety of topics from MIT students. Hope you enjoy it as well!

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Hi, guys! My name is Haley, and I’m a sophomore in EECS. I also really love teaching. Unsurprisingly, then, one of my favorite weekends of the year is Splash weekend, when I go all out and don’t sleep or work as much as I probably should.

Splash weekend starts rather early for me. I wake up at an absurd time in the morning and headed over to check-in. This is a three-hour shift of giving excited students their schedules, informing parents where they can purchase meal tickets and how to get to Lobby 10, and shuffling through stacks of student registration forms, asking “does ‘r’ come before or after ‘n’?” to myself over and over. Since the previous week had been spent working in a haze trying to make sure I was completely caught up in my classes, seeing and interacting with smiling people was energizing.

After this, I had approximately an hour-long break before the chaos of my schedule kicked in. I had decided at one point that it was a brilliant idea to sign up for 11 hours of classes. I don’t regret making that decision, but my days became more stressful than I had originally anticipated. I weaved through the horde of students in the Infinite to get to lobby 10 (when you come to MIT, either as students or to visit, please please please walk at a reasonable pace through the Infinite). The Bush Room was a haven just off lobby 10, where teachers could grab snacks and hang out during their free time. I saw a lot of familiar faces preparing for classes they’d teach later that day. After all, we are MIT students and we do procrastinate.

While I was sitting and looking around, the second-hand energy I’d gotten from the excitement of high schoolers began to wear off. I listened to the discussions around me. Everyone else seemed to be teaching really advanced and high-level STEM topics. I mostly stuck to the Humanities: Game Theory and Social Behavior, History of Education, Introduction to Mental Health, KnitKnitKnit. I tried to teach some math topics, but more because of the feeling that I should be teaching technical classes than out of a desire to teach them. The “should” feeling came from Impostor Syndrome, the worry and doubt and feeling that I’m not good enough.

The emphasis in Splash is on what you’re teaching, or how many classes you’re teaching, with little consideration for how students learn or how teachers deliver the information. While it’s fantastic that people have such diverse and deep interests, it quickly becomes intimidating when you feel as if everyone around you is teaching things that you don’t understand. Especially if you’re now in your second year at MIT and feel like surely you must have learned something, but now you can’t remember a single thing. Clearly everyone else knows what they are doing and learned all of the material in their classes. Suddenly, you fall into a spiral of “how do i even go to school here? why do i even go to school here if i can’t even remember any of my class materials?”

Last Spring I was feeling these worries even more so than this year. One weakness in my teaching is that I have a hard time interacting with the know-it-all student who interrupts with questions to let everyone else in the class know how smart they are. They raise their hand and ask questions beyond the scope of the class and talk over other students. When I taught a classroom of middle schoolers about elementary particles, a student like this sat in the middle of the classroom and fired question after question, corrected me with small technicalities left and right. I cried after class: “why am i even at MIT, when there are middle schoolers who know more than i do, and are an order of magnitude more confident?”

While it has taken me a long time, I’m just now beginning to feel okay with both my peers who are ridiculously good in STEM and the students calling out in class. I have been constantly learning to recognize my strengths – in teaching, tutoring, empathy – and reminding myself that, while MIT puts an emphasis on having technical skill over people skills, the people skills are no less valuable.

I was much happier this Splash when I (partially) came to terms with this understanding. Even though I did get a little discouraged by the knowledge that my classes weren’t as difficult or rigorous as those of my friends’, I was able to shed those worries as soon as I was in front of a classroom.

My favorite class to teach was Game Theory and Social Behavior. As I have presented this topic time and time again, I focused almost entirely on the presentation of the material. I did need to lecture for some of the time, which is my least favorite way to teach, but I needed to teach students basic concepts about game theory. In addition to lecture, students got to act out a game theory situation, or Iead a discussion on behavior, which allowed them to connect the material to their lives. From 11.124 Introduction to Education, I knew techniques to bridge the gap between student misconceptions and understanding, to incorporate checks and assessments to judge student understanding and vary pace accordingly (also to ensure that the students don’t get bored).

I did eventually teach a technical class on fuzzy Set Theory. After 4 hours of teaching at that point, I was quite tired. A friend of mine came in to borrow a whiteboard marker, and I gave him a full one (not realizing that the one I saved for myself was dry). Not having a board to write on in a math class threw off my flow for a few minutes. Fortunately, one of the Splash volunteers came to give me a large piece of paper and a Sharpie. Trying to hang up this paper on the wall was a challenge, and it fell down a few times. When one of the students snarked about “MIT engineering at work,” I maintained my calm and asked him to hang it up, and was very satisfied when he said it was harder than it looked and apologized.

What I learned is that one of the best things someone can do when they start feeling like an impostor is to remember a few important things:

  1. A wide variety of skills are needed for a group of people to succeed together.
  2. Technical skills or straight-A grades are not the only ways to be successful (props to you if you are awesome in these areas though!).
  3. Everyone is good at something, whether it’s juggling or making people laugh or chemistry or math or taking photos or writing. All of these skills have worth and value. Even if it doesn’t seem like it now.

Stay warm and stay awesome!