For a long time, I wanted to be a teacher. I think this is natural for many children growing up, as most of the adults we admire apart from our parents are all teachers, and later on, professors in college.
In third grade I could distinctly remember wanting to be an elementary school teacher, only to decide in middle school that being a middle school teacher was far more fun. The classes were more interesting, and the students had more freedom… Only to decide in high school that, no, a high school teacher is far more interesting. Students could question so much more, and classes were much less about memorizing. Until college came, and I decided that a professor was the best of all.
No silly exams - I could just teach seminars and engage in lively, passionate discussions all day. Students were finally treated like adults, weren’t they? So when the opportunity to finally teach (admittedly as a teaching assistant) came, I leapt at it.
In retrospect, I don’t think it’s particularly surprising that I thought this way. Article after article after article talk about the importance of teachers, and how it’s one of the noblest professions - aren’t our educators entrusted with our children, our very future? Politically, it’s become exceedingly popular to praise teachers and lament as to how under-appreciated they are.
The problem is that none of these studies take the aptitude of the students into consideration. The truth is, the vast majority of learning in any context comes from one’s own self - usually by doing, not lecturing - and while teachers can help when a student comes across a particularly difficult problem, this help is only useful if the student has the initiative to try the problem on his own. Help without initiative is not learning. And the more competent the student is, the more able he is to learn on his own. The most valuable skill in life is to be able to learn on one’s own - where the teachers are not the conventional notion of humans but books, experiences, and perspective.
So very quickly, I found that most experiences when being a TA boiled down to either helping struggling students who couldn’t understand basic concepts or chastising capable but lazy students who expected the TA to simply give the student the answer. There was an implicit assumption in many cases with the latter group that, should they simply show up to lab hours, by the end of the hour they were entitled to a working solution.
Indeed, most students (particularly in lower level classes) were very unappreciative of attempts for actual - gasp - teaching. In some cases, students would idly text or Facebook while a TA was explaining concepts, only to find the student would simply shrug and say they didn’t understand. And this is at an Ivy League institution. I can only imagine how horrible it is at lower caliber schools.
This does get slightly better at upper level classes, since most of the laziest and least competent students have been weeded out or discouraged by the entry level courses, but it still does not change. The most exciting material - the most challenging material, usually - is nearly never discussed. Either students are struggling too much to grasp it or are so capable that they nearly never need help with it.
The real problem is that our educational system - even at top institutions - are designed to ensure a minimum competency rather than differentiate between the most competent students. We have a compromise in accelerated/advanced vs basic/remedial classes, but to a large degree this is done to ensure the teacher’s sanity. We need a system that identifies the most passionate students - those often obsessed with a subject and willing to spend hours on a problem - and encourage them to go deeper. Instead, most of these students are dismissed out of hand, since they pass the minimum requirements, and teachers spend more time with under-performers.
Of course, being a TA was certainly not all bad; there were many fun moments and rewarding ones where I was fortunate enough to inspire and help students. But I think most of all it was valuable because, while fun to do occasionally, it taught me that it was certainly not the career for me.