Psychotherapy Bulletin Editor’s Note: This reflection on the Student Excellence in Teaching/Mentorship Award highlights the recipient’s meaningful experiences related to the award, with a focus on where the recipient would encourage other students to attend regarding their own development of skills related to teaching and mentorship.
Developing one’s identity and skills as a teacher and mentor is a highly rewarding, but also challenging, task. One of the challenges comes from the fact that we as graduate students have multiple responsibilities and commitments and often struggle to find time and energy to actively pursue teaching/mentoring on top of research, clinical work, and coursework. My goal here is to share three approaches that I found to be helpful in navigating my development as a teacher and mentor, with the hope that they can be of some utility to my peers.
Utilize Transferable Skills
First, it eased my entry to a teaching/mentoring role to identify and draw upon my existing skills that are transferrable to teaching. The first time I gave a lecture was for an undergraduate psychology course for which I was a teaching assistant in my first year of graduate school, and I remember feeling surprised because the experience reminded me of presenting at a conference. My target audience was different, but the process of preparing and presenting my talk was similar. In fact, over the course of my graduate career, I learned that many of the skills I developed in research and clinical contexts generalized to my teaching. For instance, I was able to learn and practice how to explain complex concepts in clear and accessible terms by giving research presentations during lab meetings and at conferences. Experiences from my clinical work also allowed me to embrace spontaneity in interpersonal interactions and become more adaptable in a classroom. I found it helpful to approach teaching as an opportunity to extend and apply skills I gained from other domains rather than an entirely new activity. Even though I was a novice teacher, the insight gave me the confidence and drive to take on additional teaching opportunities, such as leading lab sections of the psychology research methods course and teaching online psychology classes. Recognizing how different areas of my work mutually reinforced each other also led me to experience each of them as more fulfilling.
Learn by Example
Another practice that I found to be helpful was observing and learning from other teachers and mentors. I was a teaching assistant for 10 undergraduate psychology courses and had a chance to work with instructors of different teaching styles and emphases. They were great role models for me, and I liked to take mental notes of what I found to be most effective in each instructor’s teaching—whether it be a poignant metaphor, an engaging use of media, or a creative assignment design. Through those observations, I was able to build a repository of teaching inspirations and tools, which greatly facilitated my own teaching. I also learned from working with the instructors what were the essential teaching goals in my discipline, such as promoting students’ knowledge and real-life application of psychological theories, along with their ability to understand, critique, and produce scientific writings, as well as engage in critical thinking. Understanding these overarching goals helped to shape my values and approaches in teaching and mentoring.
Maintain a Growth Mindset
The third lesson I learned about teaching/mentoring was the importance of maintaining a growth mindset for students and mentees. Like psychotherapy, the aim of teaching and mentoring is to facilitate others’ growth and improvement. If I do not believe that every student can learn and improve, how can I help them to do so? In my experience, maintaining a growth mindset involved forgoing premature conclusions about what students could and could not do and actively conveying my sense of confidence in students. I observed in several instances how my words of encouragement and trust could help a student thinking of dropping a course to persevere and pass the course. Another way for me to implement a growth mindset has been promoting students’ autonomy and ownership of their work. In mentoring undergraduate research assistants (RAs), I saw that their engagement and performance were best when I treated the RAs as my colleagues, inviting their inputs on task assignments and execution of the research projects in the lab. It was deeply gratifying to watch how my RAs gradually developed into independent thinkers and researchers by taking greater ownership of their experiences in the lab.
In graduate school, we are in an interesting phase where we serve the dual roles of being a student and a teacher/mentor. Such transitional phase may feel awkward and unstable at times, but it also holds a lot of promise and possibilities. I hope that the three tips I shared—drawing upon existing skills and knowledge, learning from other teachers and mentors, and cultivating a growth mindset—make others’ pursuit of teaching/mentoring more fruitful as it did for me.
Cite This Article
Shin, K.E. (2019). 2019 SAP excellence in teaching/mentorship award winner reflection: Three tips on teaching and mentoring as a graduate student . Psychotherapy Bulletin, 54(3), 57-58.