Repair Stories

Confessions from the Classroom: What I Learned About Students

I’ll be honest. I never dreamed that I’d be lecturing at a university.

I’m a technical writer, a solar physicist, a masseuse. But I never thought I’d be a teacher until I came to iFixit. I direct iFixit’s technical writing project—a service learning tool to help students write real repair manuals so they can learn technical communication.

students in the iFixit technical writing program

A thousand thoughts raced through my head during my first day in front of a classroom: “I have no idea what to say to them,” “I’m pretty sure engineers hate English,” “Is that student actually texting during lecture?”

I was 90% deer-in-the-headlights and 10% panic. I wasn’t helping students with math, but I’ll tell ya, that equals 100% terrified.

It’s been over a year since I began that classroom journey. And things turned out a little differently than I expected. As the Director of Education Services at iFixit, I’m now waxing poetic about my classroom visits. Although my job requires that I do a plethora of things (send out toolkits, talk to instructors, email students), nothing gives me the perspective I need to facilitate the program like face-to-face sharing with students.

I need to be in the classroom. It keeps me grounded.

Don’t get me wrong, being in the classroom is complicated. There isn’t a foolproof method for teaching. A lecture that works with one group of students could fail miserably with another. An assignment that excites one group of students might elicit crickets from another.

Being in the classroom is hard. But I love it, because amazing things happen when instructors and students come together in the classroom.

True confessions: here is what I learned about the students I was so nervous to meet.

Students are real. They don’t pretend (most of the time). If they don’t care about my lecture, they show it. If they aren’t interested in the assignment, they aren’t going to give me false reassurance. Unless it’s 4AM the night before a paper is due, baloney answers aren’t their style. But “being real” also goes the other way. When they are excited, their passion is palpable. You can see it in their faces, in their presence, and in their work—just like this group of students who wrote guides for their guitar amp. That was real.

Students are fearlessly resilient. They will experiment. They will try everything and anything to get an answer—a lot of the time it’s the wrong answer. Time after time I watch students keep on going to succeed. I’ve seen them gain the courage to lend a helping hand—like the students who wrote guides for wheelchairs used in the developing world.

Students are curious. They are hungry for knowledge—to understand and to communicate that understanding. They may not always show it in obvious ways, but I see it when they ask questions. Students will bring up e-waste, society, and repair culture on their own. They want to know how they can fix the big issues.

Students are ambitious.  They may act crazy, but that’s just their ambition talking. Students set their minds on what they believe in—and go for it. Whether it is starting their own company or creating a full set of guides for their laptop, students push themselves. Often they reap the rewards.

Students are inventive … sometimes too inventive—especially with grammar. But often their inventiveness produces interesting results. If they don’t have instructions, no problem. If they are on a tight budget, they’ll make it work. They find ways to figure a problem out, whether it’s putting a tarp in the bed of a pickup to make a pool, or keeping a vintage 1980s Volvo running strong.

Students are fun. They have a lust for life. Somehow they always find a way to have fun and see the possibility in life—in and out of the classroom. They play video games, they stay up all night, they dance and talk and laugh. They seek out the best of life—perhaps the biggest lesson I learned from them.