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WATE PGR 2020 Commendee: Sam Ferracin (Physics)

Why did you start teaching? What (or who) inspired you?

I started to give my first private lessons at the age of 18. It was a nice way of earning some money, and I soon started to enjoy helping kids with their homework. During my third year of undergrad I was enrolled as a tutor for various labs and maths courses, and when I started my PhD I decided to dedicate some time to teaching. I can’t say that someone in particular inspired me, but certainly I have met many tutors and professors that were doing their job pretty well. I have tried to learn something from all of them.

What pearls of wisdom have you been given over the years that have helped you with your teaching?

Some years ago I happened to listen to “Son of man” by Phil Collins and the verse “In learning you will teach and in teaching you will learn” has since then remained in my mind. Learning while teaching happens all the time, as students always give you alternative points of view, and I consider it to be the most valuable reward.

Is there anything you wish someone had told you when you started out?

Starting to teach can be rather scary at first. One starts thinking “What are they going to ask me?, ” or “Am I going to be able to answer all their questions?.” The most important lesson I have learned while teaching is that it is very easy to create a good connection with the students. One eventually feels at ease with them, and understands that there’s nothing wrong with telling them that “I actually don’t know how to answer your question, let’s get back to it next time we meet.” I wish somebody had told me to keep calm and enjoy!

If you were mentoring a first-time teacher, what advice would you give?

  1. Try to create a nice, friendly environment with your students, but be firm when needed.
  2. Keep the students busy. Avoid long theoretical lessons that will make them fall asleep, give them tasks and let them learn by doing.
  3. Not everybody goes at the same speed. Observe your students, support those that are in need of help and at the same time encourage the best ones to do even better.

What advice/top tips would you give to more experienced teachers?

Keep enjoying! Teaching is not a static job, it can be engaging even with many years of experience.

What does being recognised through WATE PGR mean to you?

The WATE PGR is the first teaching award I have ever received. It means a lot to me, as it comes after several years of experience and good results. It certainly gives me motivation to keep teaching in the future.

What do you enjoy the most about teaching? What’s the best part of your job?

The interaction with younger students. I see them going through the same path as I went though in the past, learning the same things, struggling with the same topics. It reminds me of who I was some years ago.

What new technologies are you currently using to enhance your teaching? What are your top tips for using them?

I have to admit that I am an old-fashion teacher. I tend to speak and write on the whiteboard, without using slides or electronic devices. The main advantage with the whiteboard is that it allows you to improvise, adding content to the lesson whenever you think that it may be good for the students.

What are the biggest challenges faced by teaching staff? How do you overcome these?

Teaching often requires interacting with students with different skills and background. In a class with many students, you will always have some that have a more solid background and others that struggle. The biggest challenge is to be equally engaging to all of them.

What lessons have you learned from your students?

They taught me to be simple. The students in maths and physics need simple explanations at first, they won’t understand the details of long calculations if you don’t give them an intuition. This is something that was useful to me also outside of teaching, for example while presenting my work during conferences.

If you could write a recipe for the perfect inspiring teacher, what ingredients would you need?

I would put passion, up-to-date knowledge of the subject and friendly attitude. This are my current ingredients, but I am still looking for more!

Enjoyed hearing from Sam? See the full list of 2020 winners and commendees and read other interviews.