Managing a Diverse Classroom

Overview

Teaching: 10 min
Exercises: 10 min
Questions
  • How can I prepare for effective co-teaching?

  • What are the challenges of managing a heterogeneous classroom?

  • What do I do if there is a Code of Conduct violation?

Objectives
  • Evaluate different strategies for managing a class in which learners have diverse backgrounds and skill levels.

  • Know what to do if someone at your workshop violates the Code of Conduct.

Never Teach Alone: How to Be a Co-instructor

The best thing about managing a classroom for a Carpentries workshop is that you never face problems alone! Your co-instructor, helpers, and host are all there for you. Co-teaching describes any situation in which two teachers work together in the same classroom. Friend and Cook’s Interactions describes several ways to do this; we use the following methods most frequently:

Both of these models are better than teaching alone because they create opportunities for lateral knowledge transfer. Team teaching is particularly beneficial in day-long workshops: not only does it give each teacher’s voice a chance to rest, it reduces the risk that they will be so tired by the end of the day that they will start snapping at their learners or fumbling at their keyboard. Having a co-instructor also means that you can teach a workshop without knowing all the topics that are being taught, and if multiple instructors are both knowledgeable on the same topics, they can help each other answer questions.

Putting some thought into how you and your co-instructor will work together can make the most out of this supporting relationship and can make the difference between a good workshop and a great one – for you and for your learners.

How to Help

Many people who aren’t comfortable teaching are still willing and able to provide in-class support. We call these people “helpers.”

Helpers can assist in a variety of ways: help learners with setup and installation, answer questions during exercises, monitor the room to spot people who may need help, or keep an eye on the shared notes and either answer questions there or remind the instructor to do so during breaks. The helper checklist describes what helpers can do to help instructors in more detail.

Helpers are sometimes people training to become teachers (i.e., they’re Teacher B in the teach and assist model), but they can also be advanced learners who already know the material well, previous workshop participants, or members of the host institution’s technical support staff.
Using advanced learners as helpers is doubly effective: not only are they more likely to understand the problems their peers are having, it also stops them from getting bored.

Teaching Together - Nuts and Bolts

With a partner, imagine that you are planning a workshop together and answer the following questions:

  • How would you prepare to teach a workshop together?
  • During the workshop, what are some things the assisting instructor can do (or shouldn’t do!) to support the main instructor?

As an entire group, discuss what you came up with and then compare to the recommendations below.

Recommendations

If you and a partner are co-teaching, try to follow these recommendations:

  • Coordinate who is teaching what, sufficiently in advance that both instructors are confident in their preparation.

  • If you have time to do some advance preparation together, try drawing a concept map together or teaching a short snippet of the lessons for each other.

  • Discuss in advance if you will providing feedback to each other and how to do so (see notes above).

  • If it won’t cause cognitive overload for you (the instructors), work out a couple of hand signals to communicate. “You’re going too fast”, “speak up”, “that learner needs help”, and, “It’s time for a bathroom break” are all useful.

  • The person who isn’t teaching shouldn’t interrupt, offer corrections, elaborations, or amusing personal anecdotes, or do anything else to distract from what the person teaching at the time is doing or saying. The one exception is that it’s sometimes helpful to ask leading questions, particularly if the learners seem unsure of themselves.

  • For Carpentries workshops, a single instructor usually teaches for a half-day stretch (2-3 hours). You can alternate more frequently, but each person should teach for at least 10-15 minutes at a stretch, since learners may be distracted by more frequent interleaving.

  • Each person should take a couple of minutes before they start teaching to see what their partner is going to teach after they’re done. This allows each instructor to set up their partner’s material without covering it themselves.

  • Whenever possible, the person who isn’t teaching should stay engaged with the class. Monitor the shared notes, keep an eye on the learners to see who’s struggling, jot down some feedback to give your teaching partner at the next break - anything that contributes to the lesson is better than anything that doesn’t. It’s easier for the other instructor to take a break to catch up on outside work (like email) if there are at least three instructors or sufficient helpers to make sure that the main instructor is supported.

In teaching as in life, shared misery is lessened and shared joy increased; take a few minutes when the class is over to either congratulate or commiserate with each other. In that moment, no-one will understand how pleased you are at helping someone understand how loops work, or how disappointed you are that you just couldn’t get software to install on that one learner’s laptop, than the person you just taught with.

Managing a Diverse Classroom

Although our workshops are targeted at novices, every workshop will have participants from a variety of backgrounds and technical skill levels. Some may be at the novice level in one technology (e.g. git), but competent or even expert in another (e.g. R). As an instructor, you will need to be attentive to this diversity in your learners’ prior skill level, and adjust your instruction appropriately. This is one of the most difficult things instructors experience when running a workshop.

What Are the Challenges?

What are some of the challenges you might expect when teaching learners with a broad range of expertise? Discuss with a partner and put your thoughts in the Etherpad.

This discussion should take about 10 minutes.

Here are some strategies Carpentries instructors have generated to deal with this issue:

The most important thing is to accept that no class can possibly meet everyone’s individual needs. If the instructor slows down to accommodate two people who are struggling, the other 38 are not being well served. Equally, if she spends a few minutes talking about an advanced topic because two learners are bored, the 38 who don’t understand it will feel left out. All we can do is tell our learners what we’re doing and why, and hope that they’ll understand.

Learners Use Their Own Machines

Learners tell us that it is important to them to leave the workshop with their own machine set up to do real work. We therefore continue to teach on all three major platforms (Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows), even though it would be simpler to require learners to use just one.

We have experimented with virtual machines (VMs) on learners’ computers to reduce installation problems, but those introduce problems of their own: older or smaller machines simply aren’t fast enough, and learners often struggle to switch back and forth between two different sets of keyboard shortcuts for things like copying and pasting.

Some instructors use Virtual Private Servers (VPS) over Secure Shell (SSH) or web browser pages instead. This solves the installation issues, but makes us dependent on host institutions’ WiFi (which can be of highly variable quality), and has the issues mentioned above with things like keyboard shortcuts.

Code of Conduct Violations

If you are an instructor, and believe that someone in a workshop has violated the Code of Conduct, you may warn them, ask them to apologize, and/or expel them, depending on the severity of the violation and whether or not you believe it was intentional.

The local workshop host is expected to help enforce the Code of Conduct and you can ask them to mediate an incident if you are uncomfortable or unable to do so yourself. If you choose to settle the issue yourself, you should notify the workshop host of the issue in case s/he feels additional steps should be taken.

No matter what you choose to do, please contact the Carpentries Code of Conduct Committee by emailing coc@carpentries.org or C. MacDonnell at confidential@carpentries.org as soon as you can and let us know what happened so that we can follow-up with the workshop host and/or participants as needed.

You also have the right as an instructor to walk out of a workshop if you feel that the participants or hosts are not supporting your attempts to enforce the Code of Conduct. Again, please contact us as soon as possible if this happens.

At the end of the morning, do the following:

Minute Cards Revisited

Use your sticky notes to write minute cards as discussed yesterday.

Key Points

  • Working with a broad range of learners can be challenging, but there are many ways to keep a classroom happy and motivated.

  • Response to a Code-of-Conduct violation at a workshop is subject to instructor discretion, but all violations should be reported to the Carpentries for follow-up.