What Teaching Has Taught Me. Seven Lessons Learned.

Lara Aigmüller

Posted in How We Work

A few years ago a friend of mine asked me if I want to take on a position as a lecturer and teach web design and web programming basics. Luckily, he reached out to me in a phase of life when I said yes to (almost) everything because I decided that trying new things will take me further in life—consequently, yes was the only valid answer.

Some time has since passed and in addition to teaching I did a few workshops for different clients as well. In this post, I want to highlight seven things I could take away from my work as somebody who is passing on knowledge and experiences to web development beginners—some more unexpected than others.

#1 You know more than you think you do.

I built my first website around twenty years ago while reading a book about HTML. So I dare to say I have some experience when it comes to building a website from scratch. I had twenty years to get familiar with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript—even though I’ve not worked in this field for such a long time professionally (school and university needed to be finished first), I’ve still spent many hours, days, and weeks learning basic concepts and advanced features.

When I stand in front of a group of web development beginners today, I realize with every sentence I speak how complex and extensive these fields are and how long it takes to explain basic things that I don’t have to think too much about in my day-to-day work anymore. This encourages me every time I doubt myself and I get the feeling I can’t cover a certain topic in my lessons because my inner critic thinks I do not know enough about it.

#2 What’s obvious for you might be hard for others to understand.

When I prepare slides for my lessons for the first time, I sometimes have the feeling that it’s not enough content yet and that I need to stuff them with even more interesting details and examples. I spend a lot of time working on code snippets, adding screenshots, wireframes, and more. When the day come to present the slides for the first time, while I’m speaking I already get the feeling that I might have overloaded them.

The first questions come up and suddenly my code examples don’t feel straightforward anymore, but seem overwhelming when looked at for the very first time, especially when you’re new to the field of web development. So I take my slides and try to make code examples simpler, the explanations more clear and super easy to understand. I repeat the most important concepts once or twice and try to find different approaches and examples to explain them.

I’ve learned that I don’t need to present fancy and complex code to make web development look sophisticated. Just the basics will do and questions will arise one way or another.

#3 There always will be topics you can’t cover.

The web is full of amazing things and you can explore so much every single day. When I listen to interesting talks or read blog posts, I get inspired and take notes about what parts of it I could use in my teachings. When I start adding all this new stuff to my presentations, it’s not uncommon that I need to remove other content, because I don’t have all the time in the world (and I bet neither do my students).

Often it’s hard for me to decide which topics to cover and which ones to skip, because there are so many great things out there in the web. When there’s a time limit, it’s worked best for me to cover only the basics and explain them well. Additionally, I try to motivate students to explore more about the discussed topics themselves. I usually add a lot of links to further resources (blog posts, tutorials, videos, etc.) to my slides that are related to the content of my lessons and workshops.

#4 Have a plan but be flexible enough to throw it overboard.

Making plans is a fun thing, but most of the time they don’t work out as expected, right? Same goes for lecture or workshop structures. I once prepared a two-part workshop with three hours each. After the first session I realized—based on questions asked by the attendees—that the topics we agreed on in advance to cover in the second session didn’t meet their needs. So I sat down at my desk and redid everything.

In the end, this turned out to be more work for me (obviously), but the workshop attendees were attentive, their thirst for knowledge was quenched and I was happy that they were happy. Looking back, my learning was that it’s just more fun when you talk about topics your audience is interested in instead of trying to explain random (planned) things and watching them fall asleep.

#5 Be open to questions.

The main reason why what I explained in the last paragraph usually happens is people asking questions when they don’t understand certain topics or want to know even more. This is a good thing. This way a communication evolves from a maybe otherwise boring frontal lecture. The result is an exchange of knowledge and the possibility to get inputs about how to improve the presentation.

When being open to questions you get the possibility to learn from your listeners and get a different view on your lecture or workshop content apart from your own.

#6 It’s okay to not know things.

When I did my first lectures I was really nervous. What if somebody asked me something I don’t know? What if I couldn’t explain things in a way others can understand? This is a very personal lesson learned because it’s obviously connected to the fact that I care about what others think of my lessons and workshops.

I realized that there are two different types of “not knowing”:

  • The first one is not knowing every existing HTML tag or CSS property, which is fine, because there are a lot and you don’t need all of them on a regular basis. As long as you know a place where you can look them up, you can get your work done. No need to know everything by heart.

  • The second one is not being familiar with a certain topic or concept at all. This one I was scared of the most. But during the last few years I accepted (or at least tried to accept) the fact that this is not a problem at all. The web and its technologies evolve in a pace you can’t follow, so there will always be parts of it you just don’t know. This is fine as well. I never try to find answers to questions I don’t have in mind off the top of my head. Instead, I’m honest about my knowledge gaps and search articles or videos that explain the question better than I would be able to do and share it with my students.

#7 Slow down and breathe.

One of my super powers is that I can speak very fast. As you can imagine, this is not a super power when it comes to teaching. I remember my very first lecture, the anticipation, the tension. My first thought after I’ve finished my presentation was: “Lara, you really need to slow down.”

When I’m speaking in front of people or when I’m on stage with my band I try to avoid little breaks and silence. A few seconds without anyone speaking or doing anything always feels like one or two minutes for me and makes me jittery. This is, of course, very subjective. So I need to remind myself to take breaks more often, to breathe, to drink a sip of water.

Consequently, I am more relaxed and students and workshop attendees get breaks too where they can think about what they’ve just learned and let it sink in.

To go full circle, I can compare this last lesson learned to web design basics: Small breaks during a presentation are like whitespace on a website. It’s required to give the content some visual space and the reader (or listener) time to understand.

In conclusion, I can say that I am happy I took the opportunity to teach web design and web programming basics, even if it was definitely a huge step out of my comfort zone. Putting all the nervousness and self-doubt aside, it’s just fun and great to see others experience how the web works. I’ve learned so many things myself and there’s still much space to keep growing. 🪴

Did you make similar experiences? I’m happy to share my thoughts, let me know on Twitter! 🐦

Any thoughts or comments?

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