Learning to Teach

By New Head of Subject Mark Aspinwall

I was standing on a chain under the bowsprit of a schooner when the question of feedback first popped into my head.

We were in the north Atlantic, not far from Nova Scotia, in a rising wind. Two university students were up on the bowsprit itself, struggling to fasten a sail. Each time the ship dipped into the waves, the icy water rose to my waist. My boots were full.

The captain had ordered a change of sail. The students duly dispatched two of their number to a locker for a smaller heavier storm jib, capable of withstanding gusts, and lugged it forward.

As they wrestled it into place I could see they had made a mistake: instead of fastening it to the bowsprit they fastened it to the sail underneath. Bad move. As they hauled one sail up they would pull the next one up after it.

My job, as one of the deck officers, was to be their teacher and advisor. Their job, as ‘semester-at-sea’ students, was to learn how to sail, navigate, and conduct oceanographic tests.

So when I saw their mistake I asked myself: should I say something or should I wait until they notice what they’ve done wrong? I waited. Like my father always said – you learn from your mistakes, then you do it right the next time.

Unfortunately the captain didn’t see it the same way. Even before the students themselves realized, he marched from the helm up to the bowsprit, a stream of expletives spewing forth, accusing us all of being idiots. Needless to say the problem was rectified right away.

It was my first teaching job, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t the right way to go about getting a point across. I lifted myself off the bobstay and had some quiet words with the captain. He apologized, agreeing I was right.

Everything might have gone more smoothly if we had just given the students a step-by-step set of instructions, but we didn’t. They were supposed to be learning-by-doing. Eventually they got it right, and they may have forgotten the moment. I haven’t.

At the end of the cruise I realized it wasn’t such a bad thing to have a gruff old captain to be compared to, because in their evaluations the student rated me much higher than him. I think they just found me easier to get along with.

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