When the Teacher (Literally) Becomes the Student

Electives

When the Teacher (Literally) Becomes the Student

Professor Joseph Saleh's Teach the Teacher program is a hit.

It’s the end of the semester, and Joseph Saleh has wrapped up teaching his aerospace engineering courses, some of which are considered the toughest undergraduate classes in the major. His schedule includes the usual tasks — exams to check, grades to assign. 

But for Saleh, this also is the time when he switches from professor to student. It’s time for Teach the Teacher.

Teach the Teacher is something Saleh does every semester, every course. He invites students to make a presentation to him at the end of the year. If they can teach him something new, they earn extra credit.

“The content is secondary,” Saleh said. “I really believe you become a better learner when you make the effort to teach someone. It’s no longer about the topic; it’s the relationship between you, the topic and your audience.

“Several students told me it was intimidating thinking about coming, but preparing it was fun. Getting over that intimidation is a very good learning opportunity.”

Saleh tells his students about Teach the Teacher the first week of every semester, and toward the end of the semester, he hands out a sheet detailing the specifics: They can earn up to three bonus points for giving a 45-60 minute presentation during Dead Week or finals week, but the content must be “well structured and organized, and smartly delivered.”

Students sign up by the dozens, and Saleh sometimes has to spend nights and weekends on campus. The topics are as diverse as Georgia Tech’s student body: sailing, mountain climbing, bartending, sewing, music. One student gave a presentation on trading stocks, and he admitted to Saleh that earlier in the semester he made $8,000 on a trade during one of Saleh’s lectures.

International students often teach Saleh about the history or culture of their home countries. Yiwen Zhang, a senior in aerospace engineering who grew up in China, took two of Saleh’s courses last year. She called him a strict instructor, but one who cares about his students. She noted that he leaves chocolate on his desk for students who visit during office hours, and that he memorized the names of all of his students.

She signed up for Teach the Teacher mostly because it seemed fun, though the extra credit didn’t hurt. She gave a lecture called “East Asia Great Power Relationships from the 1850s to 1990s,” presenting from a three-page script.

“I was nervous at first, because Dr. Saleh is knowledgeable in history,” she said. “I was afraid to embarrass myself in teaching him something he knew well. During the presentation, Dr. Saleh took some notes and did ask a lot of questions. I believe he did enjoy it; he said he learned a lot.”

Zhang said it was a great experience, in no small part because it helped her realize that she has knowledge that is valuable. “From him, I realized that knowledge is full of diversity and is attractive in every form,” she said. 

That concept is central to Saleh, who takes as many massive open online courses (MOOCs) as he can, most recently one on the Civil War. “They’re like candy for the brain,” he said.

While an engineering graduate student at MIT, Saleh also was working on a master’s degree in medieval history at Harvard, just because the topic fascinated him. It was also at MIT that Teach the Teacher first originated. Saleh was new to the United States and, while serving as a teacher’s assistant, he realized that his students could teach him about his new home. He started to meet with students over coffee, asking them to teach him something. Through those meetings, he got up to speed on American culture and history.

When he became a professor, Saleh decided to incorporate that concept into his classes through Teach the Teacher. And, semester after semester, he continues to learn.

Recently, one student asked to teach Saleh about elevators. Saleh expected it to be boring, but he agreed. The student came in with some pieces of equipment used to maintain elevators, explaining how each worked. 

Saleh thought the presentation was done, but the student led him out of the room, down a hall and into an elevator. The student plugged in his equipment and froze the elevator, mid-floor.

“I told him, ‘I think this is illegal,’” Saleh said. “It turned out for three generations, his family has been in the business. He actually had the contract for maintenance on all of the elevators on the Georgia Tech campus.”