Teach Like a Student: The Power of Being Imperfect (And Having Fun)

I stopped worrying about seeming perfect and helped my tutoring students learn more while staying engaged. 

This story is written by a Tutor.id tutor whose profile can be found here

Have you ever met someone with a talent that seemed like “a gift”, so innate and natural that it would be hard to imagine someone had learned it?

Sometimes you meet a teacher with exactly this kind of level of skill, and it’s amazing. When I entered high school, I started a mechanics course. At the time I wanted to explore something beyond what I saw at school and liked having the opportunity to start working. Among the subjects I studied was technical design.

The second was that he could make perfect lines and circles with the naked eye on the blackboard without using a ruler or a compass.

Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash

The first time I looked at his drawings I was amazed at such skill. I clearly thought I would never achieve it. During the course, I managed to improve in a few things. Others, not so much, and freehand drawing was one of them.

After a few years, I learned that it was not a natural gift but a skill that was trained during years when he drew manually. If we stop to reflect, this insight is immediately applicable in most areas of our lives. As noted in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers: the story of success”, hard work is more valuable than inborn talent. Or, as Tim Notke said, “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard”.

Teaching With The Mind of a Student

For a long time, I believed that for a class be good, I had to be perfect in my teaching material to impress the student. This led me to want to make sure that every bit of material I used in class was perfectly designed. I would bring pre-made drawings for teaching geometry, asking the students to copy them before continuing the exercise. 

When I started teaching using the computer screen as a blackboard, I had a program that could draw the lines and circles, but I kept asking them to draw in their notebook, using a ruler and a compass. I didn’t see my students have any difficulty with this task, but a part of me was still annoyed about not making the drawings freehand. I guess, in trying to appear authoritative and “put-together” in my classes made me a little stiff, as well. 

Photo by Ben Rosett on Unsplash

After a while, I managed to get a bit over myself. It took a bit of courage, but when it came time to present a geometric figure, I drew it on the spot using GeoGebra, instead of bringing in a pre-made image. Using the tool, the lines still came out straight and the rays perfect.

And even though I took a few more minutes during the process, the students were much more attentive to the process of drawing construction. Maybe, because I used tools similar to theirs (ruler and compass), with some students drawing at the same time as I was, all of us felt more engaged in the process. 

As a teacher I know how difficult it is to keep the students’ focus, especially in a “less loved” subject like math or geometry. When I realized that I had the space to relax when talking to my students, I also managed to make the learning process a lot less “boring”.

This is Supposed to Be Fun

I spent the holidays that year analyzing how I could make the classes different. If I was going to solve the problem of student attention, I would have to present my content in an unusual, engaging way. When a student contacted me through tutor.id because she needed to prepare for a Geometry test at the end of the year, I decided to put my new class strategy in practice. 

Even without knowing what impact this would have on my online class, I went ahead with what was planned. I started by telling her that this could be the most fun class we could have, as she would see live how bad I was at drawing freehand.

We laughed a lot, I was nervous that she thought it was a joke. Instead, she felt super comfortable in class, she had no doubts about the content. At the end of the class, I asked her to send a picture of her drawings. She sent a picture of her notes, mentioning that she was comfortable doing so because she had already seen my misshapen drawings.

The Breakthrough

The following week, we did exercises of the same subject and, coincidence or not, she had no hesitation about working through the problems, and continued drawing everything freehand.

Knowing that she, a student who said she didn’t know anything about the subject, understood the subject matter, and eliminated hesitation made me extremely happy.

Drawing freehand taught me two things: 

One, that just letting go and getting on with it creates a sense of camaraderie with the students. Because they see that the reward is greater than the difficulty, they continue to be engaged and motivated, too. 

Two, I should have been doing it this free-hand way a long time ago, but the fear of change slowed my progress.

If you’ve made it here, you are probably a little curious about how bad my drawings really are. I shall not leave you wanting. Here they are, in all their imperfect glory: 

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