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Leadership is earned (and learned)

I had a really bad teaching assistant (TA) one term in university. Rather than focusing on helping his students (e.g. me) learn the course concepts and guide us to solve problems ourselves, he would shrug his shoulders and avoid answering questions. His leadership style was more like that of a babysitter, telling us to do online quizzes and referring us to the internet if we had questions. Useless.

One day in the computer lab, clearly filled with students from his class working on another project, he burst in with his bi-weekly paycheque and bragged to a friend about how well the position paid. I honestly don’t know how he got the job in the first place.

I ended up helping classmates solve JavaScript problems and make their games run for their final projects (albeit I did learn a lot by doing so). At the time, I really felt like I should get paid to do his job, and he could probably learn a whole lot from me. I wasn’t jealous of him, I was pissed that he was so useless and pretentious.

That was the first time I encountered a failed leader.

Maybe he was setup for failure? Maybe not. He willingly accepted the responsibilities of his position in exchange for pay. He had taken the course before (and somehow that qualifies him for the job), perhaps received a moderately good mark in the class, and applied for the job at the right time. It’s all about timing and your network. Maybe he was besties with the professor outside of class.

Whatever it was that got him there, he shouldn’t have been there. He shouldn’t have been the one we were supposed to turn to in times of need, when hours of effort to make the logarithms, lines of code and snippets of script work in harmony. Despite our terrible TA, that class was a lot of fun and I did really well.

I had a chance to TA a course once (yes, Teaching Assistant as a verb… AKA assist in teaching). I could have taught the same programming course that I complained about earlier, but I chose Public Relations instead. I took it upon myself to help the students become better writers. Sure, the class wasn’t a writing class. It was clear who knew the rules of grammar and writing structure and who didn’t. It was clear who read over their essays before handing them in and who didn’t. It was clear who read my comments from the previous assignment and applied them to the next one and who didn’t. At first I marked the assignment pretty hard. The highest scoring papers really deserved the marks they got. The 51% papers really deserved their marks too.

Five to ten students came to my office hours or spoke to me after class about their grades, my comments, and how they can improve. I really liked that. I appreciated that they appreciated my feedback, my experience, and wanted to improve their grade. The marks of around 80% of the students in my tutorials improved by an average of 15% throughout the term. That means that a 70% student scored 85% by the end of the year (on average. And no, this isn’t a precise calculation). There were 10-15 students who really nailed it. Who really knew what they were doing and how to do it. I sincerely hope that they’re the ones leading companies in 15-20 years. Not crumby, fake, pretentious scumbags like my old TA.

Maybe they thought I was pretentious too? Maybe they thought I was a know-it-all and had no clue what I was talking about. I had good intentions. I gave them extra marks where I could, even gave them thorough and super-helpful midterm and final exam reviews. I really feel that I helped them learn the course concepts better, through class exercises and discussions. Yeah, I’d change a lot about my teaching style if I were to do it again. They don’t teach you how to teach for these things! There’s a quick, 30-minute orientation session that shows you how to deal with a student who wants to assault you, but that’s about it! It’s sad, really. No wonder experience helps when you apply to jobs.

I don’t think I’ll ever teach again, but I can see how working in a leadership role is challenging. The people you work with (and for) have different work styles, strengths, weaknesses, goals/hopes/dreams, personalities, histories, personal lives and issues, and different thoughts and judgments. It’s a minefield.

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