3M Fellow Pippa Lock sees teaching as a calling

Chemistry professor helps students build confidence

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LOCK, PIPPAI teach because I am called to do so. It’s not a trite statement; it is a simple truth. I recall that, as a child, the one job I thought I never wanted was a teacher’s, yet I was shown, and followed, a path full of moments that has led me to today. The blessing is not only having the privilege to facilitate learning, it is also the opportunity to learn, and to walk with others as they learn. Moment by moment, the joy, challenges and fun of this path are clear to me and call me on.

Each class along the way is ripe with moments yet to be shared, be they celebrations of success, the facilitation of frustrations, or the sharing of encouragement and hope. These snippets of time are diverse and memorable. An inspiring moment occurs when a learner asks a discerning question that hasn’t been asked in that class before. An emotional instant is felt when a learner is grasped by understanding as her question is posed out loud and discussed by the group, the instant when the idea “clicks” for her, the concept unfolds, and confusion falls away—the “light bulb” moment, one might say. In striving passionately to break down barriers to learning, a rewarding time is the opportunity to help learners take statements of “I can’t do it,” or “I don’t know how to do it,” and turn them into “I can,” and “I am doing it.” It is a true honour to help foster self-confidence, the absence of which can be such a painful and significant barrier to learning. Moments of building up, validating and watching growth—these are among my favourites.

Lock is a 3M National Teaching Fellowship recipient. Click to read about all 10 new fellows.

It’s not all smooth travelling. I see my students experience moments of discomfort, frustration and stress. I experience these, too, and admit that I do my best to keep them from affecting negatively the time with my students, in order to protect the learning space and have it be focused on their needs. However, in a given instance, I will share from my experience if there is a benefit, for example, in letting a student know that he’s not alone in what he is experiencing—a mark lower than he hoped for, a distressing personal situation that is affecting his learning, coming face-to-face with the reality of his situation. I was a student, too, and, in many ways, still consider myself to be one. We share more moments, perhaps, than he realizes; the path has its bumps.

And let us equally recognize the moments of joy for the students, of happiness reflected out and lighting our paths. A handwritten note from a student who applied to medical school appears under the door with the simple phrase, “I got in!” An email arrives from the student who came seeking help to improve. The message says, “I’m so happy right now because I just got my A+ mark back from the mid-term. My highest mark on any of the mid-terms before was a 60, so I am jumping for joy!” And why did I know these students? Because we met during office hours, in that time when help is asked for and, I hope, usefully given. A deeper truth is that the leaps forward taken during moments of humility in asking for help or saying “I don’t know” belong both to me and the learners with whom I walk. It’s a side they may not see, but there is no need to hide it. For a while, our paths intersect, and so it is no wonder that our pains and joys will interweave also.

I reap the benefits of walking with my students as they learn, and of believing in them. Moment by moment, from them I gain greater understanding about the ways that learning happens; this, in turn, helps me to guide others. In its greatest and smallest moments, teaching (learning) is simply much too life-giving not to do; I must follow this call.

Pippa Lock is an assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology at McMaster University.