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Biomedical Odyssey Home A Day in the Life Insights from Student Teacher Meiling May

Insights from Student Teacher Meiling May

An illustration of racks of hats in the back with boxes and bins in the front.

Every January, Johns Hopkins undergraduates flock to intersession courses — one-, two- or three-week courses that provide students the opportunity to explore a topic that they may not otherwise see in their curriculum. For the last two years, Meiling May has taught a course called “How Viruses Shape Our World.” In this course, Meiling teaches non-biology majors about how viruses manipulate normal biology and impact everyday life. Her class has inspired students to pursue research of their own and was so engaging that her students nominated her for the Johns Hopkins Career Champion Award. What is truly noteworthy is that although Meiling has educated literally hundreds of students during her time at Johns Hopkins, she is herself still a student.

Meiling is a sixth-year Ph.D. student researching V(D)J recombination, a genetic phenomenon central to immune system diversity, in the lab of Stephen Desiderio. Meiling, like many other students at Johns Hopkins, has taken advantage of teaching opportunities to create broad impacts across Hopkins campuses and beyond.

The most prominent teaching resource at Johns Hopkins is the Teaching Academy, which has so far honed 231 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from all nine Johns Hopkins University divisions into certified teachers like Meiling. The courses particularly focus on evidence-based teaching, learning through diversity, and interdisciplinary learning communities. Kelly Clark, the program manager of the Teaching Academy says, “The broader impact and grand vision is to improve undergraduate education in our nation by training our future faculty and to help shift the culture [to] inclusive teaching and learning in higher education. … The participants in the Teaching Academy are helping to support a more positive culture of teaching and learning at Johns Hopkins by implementing the practices they are learning in their courses here at JHU.”

Some students have taken the opportunity to expand their education beyond Teaching Academy certification. Meiling has worked outside Johns Hopkins, teaching the biochemistry laboratory course at Goucher College this past spring. Other students participate in teaching as research to conduct an educational research project. For example, Rebecca Keener and Caitlin Hanlon revolutionized how school of medicine graduate students learn about genetics research in model organisms. They flipped the Principles of Genetics class from a lecture-centric format to an application-centric format that promotes engagement and gives students control of their own education.

“Good teachers help their students not only learn the content but learn how to question and think critically about the content,” says Kelly. Meiling brings a similar attitude to her own classroom: “As a teacher, I try to teach with the philosophy that my students have limited knowledge but unlimited intelligence. … I try to remember that the purpose of teaching is to facilitate student learning. It is easy to get caught up in the mindset that the teacher knows the knowledge and must simply impart this knowledge on the students. … The focus shouldn’t be on simply transferring facts between teacher and student.”

Oftentimes teachers can get caught up in finding the one ‘correct’ way to run a class, but Meiling, who was invited to speak at a Teaching Academy workshop about her own teaching methods, insists this is often not the best approach. “Every class is different, and each student has different needs. As such, the teacher needs to be able to learn from the current situations, adapt and improve their instruction to reflect their current student needs.” The Teaching Academy provides tools for this flexibility, so that teachers can move away from the rote teaching methods that fit students and their education into boxes.

Meiling says that her students often surprise her, keeping her on her toes and driving her to come up with responses on the spot. But it is this variability and unaffectedness that students may in fact best respond to. “Students can spot inauthenticity,” says Kelly, “Showing students that you genuinely care, are passionate about your subject matter, are working to continually improve and act as the facilitator of their learning (as opposed to focusing on imparting your unquestionable wisdom onto them) is key to being a good teacher.”

Resources and training programs modeled from Teaching Academy curricula have expanded to support Johns Hopkins faculty. For many faculty, especially those who never plan to stand in front of a classroom of students, this may not seem notable. Everyone, though, has something to learn from being a teacher. Richard Brown, director of undergraduate studies and associate teaching professor in the Department of Mathematics at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, says, “Teaching is the art of communicating one’s craft.” It is not a one-way communication, either. Professor Brown, as well as other participants in the Teaching Academy, says that every time he teaches he learns something new that supports or informs his research. Kelly is worried that “we have severed the connection between research and teaching when in fact the two can work very synergistically together.” Meiling has observed that “teaching experiences can help to cut out some of the arrogance and lofty language that is often associated with science communication because it forces the teacher to rethink how they are explaining concepts and adapt to a specific audience.”

And it isn’t just research communication that teaching experience can improve. Kelly insists “many of the skills that are essential to becoming an effective teacher are transferable to many other career tracks” such as “presenting, public speaking, communication, critical thinking [and] organization.” Meiling insists that “time management was key” in her success as a teacher and that this skill is important for many other aspects of her life.

Some of the skills learned while teaching are more surprising. For example, Meiling says that teaching is a study in humility. “I had to set my pride aside and listen to the feedback that my students were giving me. … It is a very humbling experience if you take the time to elicit feedback.” But perhaps most importantly, Meiling says that teaching can help you “remember what it is like to learn something for the first time.”

This may be why students make particularly good teachers: They overcame the struggle of learning the material much more recently than well-seasoned researchers. Meiling says that being a teacher as a graduate student means that “you aren’t too far removed from being in a class and remembering what it is like to be a student.” Meiling was a teaching assistant for the school of medicine course Molecular Biology and Genetics for two years, a course that she had to take for her own Ph.D. Meiling remembers hating the feeling of being talked down to or being made to feel unintelligent as a student. In her teaching, she makes “a conscious effort to connect with students and not to come off as condescending or unapproachable.”

As an institution, across all fields, Johns Hopkins continually strives to improve by building up its faculty and students. Dedicated students such as Meiling who take on the responsibility of teaching are a strong source of this growth because they effectively disseminate their knowledge and research. Teaching should focus on the students, not the teacher. Therefore, students who are passionate about education are the best teachers, since they intuitively adopt what Kelly believes makes the best teachers: being “the guide on the side vs. the sage on the stage.”

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