For those not in the know, or for those whose universities operate differently to those in Australia, chemistry postgraduate students here from Honours to PhD get the chance to teach undergraduates in a small capacity. During a chemistry major, alongside lectures and tutorials, undergraduates undergo a certain amount of lab work in small groups (15-20 students) supervised by a postgraduate student. This postgraduate student is called the “demonstrator,” because their role is primarily to demonstrate proper laboratory technique and etiquette. For the postgraduate student, this usually gives a small income stream to supplement our scholarships and also gives us teaching experience, crucial for those seeking to further themselves in academia.
At this point, I have demonstrated for two classes, one in each semester of my Honours year last year. It is the beginning of second semester here at the University of Melbourne now, and I have been assigned my first first year class at this university. As I prepare, I reflect back on my successes and failures last year. To my shame, I have to admit that there are more of the latter than there are of the former. Especially as my Honours year drew to a close, I let my stress and exhaustion bleed into the teaching labs and I’m afraid I wasn’t as good of a teacher as I could have been. To right this, and to honour all the amazing chemistry teachers I have had in school and in university, I wanted to devise a sort of code of honour — a vow — to guide myself and other potential demonstrators in the coming semester.
As a demonstrator, I vow that:
- I will convey my love and enthusiasm for chemistry in every move I make in the teaching laboratories. I will endeavour to make the students’ experience a positive one so they may be encouraged to return in later years.
- I will prepare well for the lesson beforehand and know all the material front, back and sideways. Confidence in the material should instil the students’ confidence in me.
- I will try to provide a broader context for all practicals, especially the boring, repetitive ones. I will emphasise that chemistry is still primarily an experimental science and learning practical skills is learning chemistry.
- I will be an unyielding enforcer of safety rules in the laboratory.
- I will dig deep for a fountain of patience, remembering how nervous I was in my first year practicals. I will not be visibly annoyed at repetitive questions or silly mistakes. Although it goes against everything I stand for on this Earth, I will make a mighty effort to resist the constant urge to snark.
- I will guide my students to the correct answers — without spoon-feeding them — by encouraging them to think like chemists.
- I will mark reports fairly but stick to my guns if students question my marking. I will try to provide positive feedback and help my students grow. I will not shame them for their mistakes, even in writing.
- I will be patient with my unpaid free time, which will inevitably be consumed in the duties of demonstrating, like class preparation, report marking and slow students finishing in the lab. Demonstrating takes up so little of the year — there will be other weeks for other things.
If any veteran demonstrators have wisdom to add to this list, I would be more than happy to hear about it. Perhaps even more importantly, if you are a current undergraduate and either love or hate something your demonstrator does, let me — us — know; we’re still learning, too.
You can contact me at email@example.com, in the comments or find me on Twitter as @Lady_Beaker, tweeting about my chemistry life.