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Creating the Next Generation of Great Teachers

June 10, 2013

All graduate students at Yale serve as teaching fellows, and many go on to careers in academia, teaching while pursuing their own research. The Graduate School provides a wealth of opportunities to help students become effective educators, with Yale Teaching Center workshops and consultations throughout the academic year and programs like the Associates in Teaching and the Certificate of College Teaching Preparation to enrich students’ teaching experiences and document their pedagogical training.

From Teaching at Yale Days at the beginning of each semester to the Spring Teaching Forum near the close of the academic year, veteran teaching fellows and faculty are available to offer guidance and inspiration.

Another way the Graduate School promotes outstanding teaching among its students is through the Prize Teaching Fellowship (PTF). Every year, a small number of students are nominated for this honor by the undergraduates they teach and the faculty members who supervise them. When these students talk about teaching, it’s clear they care deeply and derive great satisfaction and joy from the experience.

Effective teaching seeks idealistic ends by realistic means,” says one PTF, James Ross MacDonald (English). “It takes as its proper object the students who are actually in the classroom, rather than what they could or should be at a particular stage of their education, and meets them with instruction that connects meaningfully to their aspirations and life experiences. I strive to define my classroom practice by three principles: rigor, relevance, and relationships.”

Several undergraduates wrote that James’s teaching had changed their lives. They praised him for his unflagging energy, high expectations, and careful attention to the needs of his students.

Joining James as this year’s PTFs were Alexander Cerjan (Physics), Subhojoy Gupta (Mathematics), Matthew Herdiech (Chemical Engineering), Andrew Horowitz (History), Matthew Lindauer (Philosophy), Miriam Logan (Mathematics), Deacon Nemchick (Chemistry), Bogdan Vioreanu (Mathematics), and Talya Zemach-Bersin (American Studies). Each of these students won high praise from the undergraduates in their classes and the professors with whom they taught. They were described as “extremely helpful,” “always incredibly well-prepared,” “astonishingly in tune with what students are thinking,” and “funny and fearless.”

What Alex finds most satisfying about teaching physics is “the look of comprehension on students’ faces when they finally understand the concepts relevant to the problem at hand.” In contrast, the hardest part for him is finding “the time required to do an adequate job preparing” for a class.

Subhojoy, who is now a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology and the Centre for Quantum Geometry of Moduli Spaces in Denmark, says, “A good teacher has that remarkable ability not just to communicate knowledge to a student, but to make it come alive.” He admits that “Preparing for a lecture is hard – it is not so easy to figure out the best way to explain something.” For him, as for most of the PTFs, the best part of teaching is “Seeing students learn, understand, and have their imaginations light up.”

Matt Herdiech reports that he was inspired by a gifted high school teacher. “What made him a great teacher was his interest in the students and how he went to great lengths to come up with innovative ways for us not only to learn physics, but to have fun learning physics. This guy was super-intelligent and clearly could have been doing more sophisticated things with his life than teach high schoolers, but when we asked toward the end of senior year why he wasn’t working at a particle accelerator or something of that nature, he claimed that what he was doing was the most important job he could imagine.”

One of the teachers who inspired Andrew is now his dissertation adviser. “As a Yale freshman, the very first class I attended was Glenda Gilmore’s lecture course on the American South. When Professor Gilmore started talking, I felt like she was telling me secrets about my own country.” He also cites the influence of David Blight, who “helped me to see that teaching is the performance of learning.” Andy especially loves leading seminars. “There are 18 people sitting around a table, with a shared body of knowledge or at least a shared point of entry into an interesting and significant problem. Our only task is to work together to try to figure it out. I study and teach American history because I care about the past – and the present and future – of the United States, so I relish the opportunity to work out ideas around a table full of engaged and talented people.”

Talya credits her enthusiasm for teaching to her experience as an undergraduate at Wesleyan. It was an “incredibly transformative and radicalizing time,” she says. Professors “constantly blew the ceiling off of my mind. At times the process was terrifying, as I learned to question and critique the world around me. However, my professors taught with such love and passion that even the most critical and world-view-altering learning was accompanied by an exciting hunger for justice that propelled me toward graduate school. In my own teaching, I seek to provide that same critical, challenging, and exciting context for learning and questioning.”

Talya and other PTFs not only teach well, but find it deeply rewarding. Teaching demonstrates that “scholarship is ultimately a social and communal endeavor,” Talya says. Her own research is often done “in isolation, so when I teach I am reminded of why I love scholarship, writing, research, the exchange of ideas, and learning. The passion and excitement of the classroom inspires me, and inspires my own scholarship.”