I was broke in college. I remember giving a friend a ride once to Chicago because we both had internship interviews there, and I had a car. It’s a 2.5 hour trip, and I was on empty, so we stopped to get gas. When I went to pay, I found my credit card maxed out. The ATM was useless. I had $3 in my checking account.
So you’ll understand, when I applied to be a Chemistry teaching assistant (TA) my Senior year, it wasn’t for the love of teaching. It wasn’t for the love of Chemistry. I just wanted the free tuition and stipend it paid.
And I thought, “It won’t be too hard. I have to teach once a week, and hold a couple office hours, where usually no one shows up and I can get some work done? Nice.”
I got picked for an experimental program to teach Chemistry 101 at the University of Illinois. Typically, students attend a professor’s lecture with 300 other kids 2 or 3 times a week, and meet with a TA once a week to take a quiz or go over a few problems. But I was chosen to help kids receive a more intimate educational setting like they may have had in highschool. I’d teach 30 Freshmen. 4 days a week + office hours. They never met with a professor. I was all they had. Class was at 9 a.m.
F me. :)
Those office hours where no one would come? Not mine. I had a few kids having some real trouble. They needed them. They needed me.
In the end, the student reviews told me I didn’t turn out too bad as a teacher. I helped some kids that really needed it, and that felt good.
But the crazy thing I noticed was how awesome I got at Chemistry 101.
Three years prior to this, I took a similar class. Same book. I remember struggling with some of the same problems these Freshmen faced.
So I would re-read the entire chapter they were on, knowing I was going to have to talk about it tomorrow. And then I’d try to stump myself with the hardest problems I could find. I couldn’t get them wrong. I took the Freshmen’s quizzes and their tests. I got 100% of the problems correct.
Somehow, this act of teaching made me understand core principles of Chemistry like I’ve never understood before. Maybe I had never tried to. But now, here, I have to turn around and explain those same principles to someone else, especially to kids failing at the basics. You’re forced to get clear.
And that’s a reason why I like to teach so much about what I do as an entrepreneur, as a developer, as a writer. It feels good to help. But it helps me an incredible amount too. It helps me clarify thoughts and ideas I have about myself and about my work.
Even if you feel new at something. Maybe a job. Or a new startup. Or it’s your first book you want to write.
Teach. Setup a lunch and learn. Try to answer questions you hear people have on places like Stack Exchange. Start a blog! Share open examples of something you’ve learned: code, spreadsheets, emails, anything. It might take awhile to build an audience, but you’ll quickly reap rewards from the clarity teaching brings you.
I learned a lot in that Chemistry class. I learned just how much those who teach, do better.
That was an agonizing walk back to the car to ask my passenger for a loan. Lucky for me, she had bills already out, and was planning on paying for gas the whole time anyways.
College and life have had plenty of obstacles like that empty gas tank. They didn’t feel good to go through, but they didn’t last forever, and often provided plenty of things to learn.
This too shall pass.
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