Teaching basic lab skills
for research computing

A Proposal for Helping Instructor Trainees Finish

Instructor training is one way we grow our community worldwide. Yet many people who go through instructor training never go on to teach at a Software Carpentry workshop. Can that be fixed? I suggest that shepherding people though the final stages might help with completion rates.

When the idea of running instructor training in Brisbane was originally mooted, I set up a survey, very early on, to record expressions of interest from people who might want to train. I tweeted that several times in the months leading up to the training. The survey captured name, email address, institution, discipline and how each applicant had heard about the survey. I wish now I had also asked ‘why do you want to train’ or ‘why do you deserve a place over someone else?’ as that would have helped me sift through the candidates.

Nearer the workshop time, I put that survey info into a spreadsheet and got my local Software Carpentry crew to help me whittle the more than 55 responses down to 20. We were mindful of a few things:

  • having a spread of disciplines, if possible
  • training people from a range of universities, if possible
  • training people from outside Brisbane, e.g. from regional universities, or from cities not offering instructor training in this round
  • training groups rather than individuals (to help foster activity later)
  • how likely the person was to actually teach.

This last was a bit tricky but attendance at a workshop or having helped at a workshop was evidence of at least some commitment to Software Carpentry.

I think one big problem is that while people like the idea of Software Carpentry workshops, and like being part of that vibe, that community, that doesn’t necessarily translate into a willingness on their part to actually teach. So evidence of previous participation helps identify instructor trainees who have already put in time to make workshops possible – whether by helping organise them, helping out on the day, getting funding to run them, and so on.

But it doesn’t hurt to do some hard questioning beforehand as to whether people can realistically see themselves teaching at workshops, and if so, how often? If someone is a PhD student in the writing-up phase, for example, it’s unlikely they will have much time to commit. By doing that kind of questioning, I was able to eliminate quite a few people from the people who originally volunteered to come.

The 20 people I ended up with were what I considered the best 20. To get a place, they had to complete the prerequisite activities by a deadline, or lose the spot - which is one good way to tell whether or not people are serious. If applicants aren’t prepared to complete tasks, or if they’re sloppy about deadlines, chances are they won’t teach workshops either.

My 20 all did the prep, they turned up on the day, they stuck it out with no falling by the wayside.

After the workshop, we were lucky we had the big Research Bazaar (ResBaz) event coming up at which we offered parallel Software Carpentry workshops in both R and Python. Several fledgling instructors got a chance to teach there while being assisted (and observed) by more experienced instructors. After ResBaz, I organised a Hangout practice session for seven of those recent instructor trainees. During that session, they all taught to the group and they all critiqued one another face to face and via an etherpad. I have since done a second practice teaching session with two other trainees (and walked them both through the pull request requirement) and am planning a third with more trainees from Townsville. I have also followed up twice via email with the rest who attended from Sydney and Canberra.

I think my follow ups have helped people complete, and my ability to get a lot of trainees teaching soon after the training ended focused them on the importance of getting through the final stages. I think having a local ‘shepherd’ can really help get people over the line. But the shepherd could be anywhere - it’s more just having someone specific to whom trainees feel accountable - someone who follows up with them, chases them up, and actually cares that they get the final bits done and qualify as instructors.

Maybe if there is no-one local who could play that role, this could be a job for the mentoring committee to handle - it really is a mentoring task.

The ideal would be to have the instructor trainer hand the class over to the mentor as part of the final session of the training, and for the mentor to check in with trainees regularly from then on – maybe by running teaching practice sessions, handholding, or talking them through the final tasks, getting them over their nerves about actually getting up and teaching (the practice sessions help with that).

I think there also needs to be some contribution pathway for people who’ve completed instructor training but have discovered - belatedly! - that teaching is not for them. In order not to waste their training, they could become an organiser/cheerleader. We could always use more of those!

Dialogue & Discussion

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