Above: Dr. Jing Gai shows how math can be fun at the 2019 Class of 1965 Teaching Excellence Award Public Lecture on 28 Oct 2019.
Interview by 27949 NCdt Yu Jie Wang
Dr. Jing Gai was recently awarded the Class of 1965 Teaching Excellence Award for her excellent work in the math department, from the nominations of faculty and students alike. She has taught me three different courses, and it was a pleasure to sit down and talk to her about her experiences and thoughts on receiving the award and teaching in general.
Could you give a brief introduction to people who aren’t familiar with your work in the math department?
I started as a research assistant in the RMC electrical engineering department in 2003, and while doing my PhD in math in 2007, I got a chance to teach math part time. After finishing my PhD in 2015, I’ve been an assistant professor here.
What inspired you to be a teacher?
It’s the students that inspired me to be a teacher. Someone once asked me, “Do you get tired of teaching the same courses year after year” and I said, “No, the content is the same but the students are not.” I love teaching, and I’m always inspired by the smiling faces of students when they learn something from me. Oh also, their very creative ideas which include their mistakes. My students are my motivation to be a better teacher and a better person.
Do you have any particular or most memorable moments from your years of teaching?
One of the most beautiful moments I’ve had in the past ten years was when a few students from my class made dumplings for me for Chinese New Year. It really touched me and brought me to tears because I understand the lengths they went to in order to buy ingredients and cook it all, especially considering you all live in the dormitories.
Another moment was this stuffed elephant. At the beginning of a course this past summer, I told some students who were having trouble that math is like a big elephant. You have to eat it a little bit at a time (this was actually advice from my French teacher). At the end of the course and 5 weeks of working with them, they all passed due to their hard work. They sent me this elephant and wrote me some words on this card. They “ate my elephant” so they wanted to give one back to me and this also really touched my heart.
Finally, I remember one time leading up to the final exams for MAE 209, the stats course. I was holding a tutorial and everyone from all the sections, even the ones I didn’t teach such as the French students. They all came. When I walked into the Massey 17, I was very surprised and shocked because there were so many students just looking at me.
What do you think is the most important part of teaching from an educator’s point of view?
I think that the most important thing about teaching is the connection. As a teacher, you need to make a good connection with your students and the content. You have to properly deliver the right lecture and speak the right language, really make sure that students can understand you. Make the connection between teaching and learning. For example, I speak in a different “language” between my arts and engineering students. This makes it easier for them to understand my points and to follow along.
I see being teacher like being a chef. Preparing a lesson is like cooking a meal. The food should be healthy and savory at the same time, just as a lesson should have the right content and difficulty for different students. Different people will like and need different foods, just like how different students learn best in different ways.
I also like to emphasize efficiency. I give out fill in the blank handouts prior to all my lectures so that students can prioritize the important pieces of information, as well as focus on the lecture, rather than copying down notes.
Now let’s get to the big question. What are your thoughts on receiving this award?
I never expected receiving a teaching award as I am naturally a quiet person and don’t like speaking in front of an audience. I actually never dreamed of being a teacher, so this award was a really big surprise for me. However, I love teaching and feel like I can do a great job, as even from a young age, I found it easy to explain a hard concept. This was a skill I knew I had even before I became a teacher. I’m just a bit shy about public speaking.
In terms of the meaning, the award is the biggest thing in my teaching career. It is my biggest achievement so far. It encourages me and gives me more confidence to be even better in the future. It especially meant a lot to me when I found out that it was my students who put my name forward.
Do you have any parting words of advice for students and teachers alike?
I have to emphasize again that it’s all about the connection. Both students and teachers have to work towards building the connection. I have a few suggestions for students.
Focus in class, try your best to follow along in class as the classroom is the best place to learn efficiently and your teacher already spent hours to prepare the lecture. It’s like a meal that is served and is waiting for you to eat. If you try to study yourself instead, you’ve got to start the meal from scratch, you’ve got to go to the grocery store and prepare from the beginning.
In addition, always ask why, understand the principle and meaning behind each concept. Math is one of the subjects where all the subjects are chained together, and if you miss a few links in the chain, you’ll be completely lost. Quickly ask questions to fill in any gaps in your understanding so you aren’t held back.
Finally, try not to just memorize the formulas and how to use your calculator. The purpose of math is to understand the meaning and to build the skills of reasoning and logical thinking, not just to memorize formulas.
To conclude, having been a student myself for over twenty-five years, I’ve been taught by hundreds of teachers and I learned how to teach from them, and I learned how to learn from experience. A good teacher must be a good learner first, you have to know how to learn to teach well. I can’t say for sure that I’m a good teacher for I can definitely say that I’m a good learner after my life time of learning.