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July 23, 2019

Anastasiya Lavell: Intentional teaching

Anastasiya Lavell is a graduate student in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Lavell was honored recently for her achievements as a graduate teaching assistant by the College of Natural Sciences.

Growing up in post-Soviet Ukraine, I didn’t realize that my experience as a pupil there was vastly different from that of an all-American one. The remnants of the communist mindset lingered in the classrooms throughout my childhood, where teachers weren’t afraid to make examples of students that excelled and certainly of those who did not.

Teachers ruled the classroom. When the teacher walked in, all students stood and in unison greeted the instructor with a “Good morning,” waiting for the cue to sit back down. Exam scores were read aloud in front the class. I recall a fellow peer bursting into tears because her first failing exam was publicly announced for all to know.

It wasn’t all bad, though.

There was a dedication to arts and music, classic literature and intense mathematics, which forever instilled in me a love for all that requires creativity. Students stayed, for the most part, with their first-grade cohort until graduation. Though they were challenged in numerous ways, through a sense of community and camaraderie, they excelled.

Moving to the U.S. was a shock to my system. There was a paradigm shift in my world and how I evaluated my own academic success. Suddenly, I couldn’t communicate or relate to my peers. I found a completely different dynamic in the classroom. Students were relaxed, opinionated and modeled an individuality I had not come across.

There was less focus on competition and more on team building in the classroom.

It wasn’t until I began my undergraduate career at the University of Minnesota that I truly experienced what good mentoring was. My undergraduate mentor was the PI of the lab and he was able to accurately identify the type of mentoring style that I needed.

This theme of supportive mentorship has again played out in my experience as a graduate student. My Ph.D. adviser at MSU is fully supportive of my interests in undergraduate teaching. So much so that he allowed me to take extra courses for a teaching certificate as well as TA for a course, even though I had funding for my stipend from his grant. Teaching takes graduate students away from their bench, and most students in my department only TA their minimum one semester requirement.

Initially, my mindset was that I was getting my teaching obligation “out of the way” of my real goal: research. It wasn’t until the end of the semester that I reflected on the efforts from both the students and the teaching staff as well as the TAs, realizing that I wasn’t really sure how you’re supposed to teach.

That thought in the back of my mind never left — that I could have done better. I started thinking about it more and more and had luckily talked to a peer who was working on obtaining a teaching certificate through the College of Natural Sciences. This opened up a whole new world for me where the scientific method was no longer limited to laboratory research, but could be used in the classroom as well.

I think it’s so important to be intentional about the way we teach. And this ties in with applying the scientific method to teaching. How can we be sure that we’re effective without trying to analyze our methods and the data that come from them?

In my future career, I hope to create a teaching environment where students feel purpose, community and inclusion. Each time I teach, or for every student I mentor in the lab, I am compelled to become better.