Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Happy as a 12-year-old kid with his first box of chalk and a new blackboard, teaching his friends

By Juan Pestana-Nascimento

Shortly after the start of high school, I found myself helping my closest friends with many difficult classes and homework assignments.  My "study group" quickly grew and my mother decided to get me a big blackboard and my first box of white chalk. As a 12 year old, I became very popular (although only before exams) and I started to lecture on all sorts of topics, ranging from geography to history, from mathematics to chemistry. What I did not know, I would make up, sometimes with surprising accuracy. Teaching was, and continues to be, an intense personal experience.

My teaching philosophy rests on five basic principles. First, teaching needs to be genuine, since the engine of the entire process is the passion the teacher feels for the subject at hand. Second, teaching must be authentic and it requires a deep understanding of the material. The teacher must identify and transfer the fundamental concepts, yet remain true to the complexity of the material. Third, a teacher must engage the student and establish a connection/dialog from which a "learning" relationship can develop. Fourth, the material must be intellectually stimulating and relevant. Finally, the material must be presented as a building block within the entire "edifice" of knowledge and multiple relationships must be created with other disciplines.

As a teacher, I provide a safe and supportive environment which allows the students to gain confidence in participating and engaging in the learning experience. I encourage and help them develop their independent and original analytical and problem solving skills. I use many (sometimes insane) analogies to help the students internalize concepts and gain insight before knowledge is actually learned. As a result, the detailed information is not only memorized but imprinted with very powerful emotional content.

I strive to the make the classes intellectually stimulating and relevant by showcasing current applications and discussing the implications on the decisions that we are making in the Civil Engineering profession. I place extraordinary emphasis in fundamentals and principles and selectively provide the details to complete the entire picture. I then help the students identify the information and tools required to make informed choices and decisions.

In summary, I strongly believe that without the genuine engagement of the hearts and minds of students, teaching techniques are insufficient to attain a higher level of performance and permanence. Again, I remain grateful for the opportunity to have fun every time I am in front of the class, learning the subject again and again. I feel as happy as the long gone twelve-year old kid with his first box of white chalk and a new blackboard.

Editor's note: Juan Pestana-Nascimento received UC Berkeley's 2010 Distinguished Teaching Award.