Ekaterina, how did you start teaching?

At first, I participated in the research, which then turned into something bigger. After I was once asked to help with the classes on the reliability of devices and systems, I began to teach this course to students and presented it at the competition. Now, I teach other subjects, too. These are design fundamentals and business ethics as part of the soft skills course.

What were your first impressions? 

I learned firsthand that studying is great but unfortunately, sometimes something is missing. It may have something to do with teaching methods: classical lectures at first courses and then lots of practical and lab work. I thought there must be a way to make it more engaging.

When ITMO introduced additional training courses, I decided to seize the opportunity and signed up for the EMI (English as a Medium of Instruction) course. There, I learned how to diversify activities, be it social, technical, or even legal sciences. This course opened up a new chapter in my life. 

I also did several internships at the Central European University in Hungary and Boston University, which were devoted to teaching specialized courses in English. The lecturers told us about such handy practices as industrial design, as well as project-based and interactive learning.

Did you begin to use this knowledge in your work?

Yes, I’m free to experiment, so I slowly began to introduce these methods into my course. At first, these attempts weren’t too bold: I asked students to watch a video or expand on how what we are studying could help in the commercialization of the product. Then, I became more confident. As a result, we have a rather interesting course, judging by the feedback from students. Inspired by the results, my colleagues and I continue to introduce innovative technologies, as well as develop and use games in education.

What do you think is the most important thing in teaching?

It’s probably to be able to put yourself in the shoes of students, as cliché as this sounds. In today’s rapidly changing world, we must meet all the challenges that confront us every day. We have to understand who we work with and what our students are like. Although their motivation might differ from what we expect, they can open up a whole new world for us and, moreover, show a different side of their personality. And a teacher’s mission is to encourage students to develop skills and fresh thinking.

And how can a teacher do that, so as not to discourage them?

It takes balance! Teachers don’t need to put extra pressure on students as they also have their personal lives and other disciplines, as well. First, you need to plan your course, namely, decide how much time you want students to work in class and independently, and so on. 

Students are not our enemies. Sometimes teachers, with their peculiar message and attitude, affect student engagement and learning. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons behind the outflow of students from some universities.

When teaching, it's important to broaden your horizons as much as possible. Of course, you can disconnect from the real world, but then you won’t be able to teach students, you will start to struggle with making yourself clear and garnering practical examples. While you don’t have to speak just like students, it’s a good thing to try to common ground with them. This way, you will show them that you are on the same wavelength and want them to successfully finish their studies. 

How can you achieve it?

I have a great example – even my personal achievement, I’d say. You know, there is this type of student who diligently completes their homework assignments and attends all classes, but they are not active in a classroom. No matter how hard you try to spice up your teaching routine, they sit silently and don’t want to leave their comfort zone. I had such a student, her name is Anna.

Once she missed a class, and as we follow an attendance points system, students have to make up for missed classes so that they would take full responsibility for their choices. So, Anna missed a class and asked for an assignment. I offered her to make a report on the application of reliability theory at her workplace, and she did a great job. She gave a terrific presentation on risks at facilities, which helped cover a related topic. At that moment, I saw her from a different angle, not just as a student but a professional who shared her experience. 

Did she change her attitude, too?

Yes, she noted that I’m passionate about my work. I asked her for the presentation so that I could upload it online for other students. Anna became, so to say, a risk expert, and after that, she turned into a completely different person, an active participant in every class. When forming the project teams, I appointed Anna as a team leader and wasn’t disappointed. She did outstanding work and I let her by-pass the exam. 

When it comes to gamification and unconventional approaches in education, some people believe that these technologies cease to amaze and, therefore, work. What do you think about it? How can we find balance?

Well, in a way, it’s true. Everything should be in moderation, and sometimes we have to be serious. However, on the other hand, games help students improve their skills and stop being afraid to make a mistake. Many teachers have experienced a situation when they throw a question at the audience and no one answers. Students are afraid to look stupid in class, say the wrong thing, and experience any consequences afterward. Yet there is no such problem with games. Besides, knowledge from textbooks is much less valuable than the one you actually put the effort into. 

But here, you should pay attention to how the game is designed. If there are too many rules and they’re rather complicated, this will distract students from the content. And, of course, teachers should ask students for feedback to learn what they like and what they don’t like.

As far as I could tell, you prefer emotional teaching – you try to connect with students and seek an emotional response from them – however, it may take a lot of effort. How do you manage to avoid burnout?

This is indeed a serious problem, but here everything depends on the person. While some people find it difficult to express their emotions, others, like me, are open with feelings. I get motivated and energized by seeing my students and their active participation. 

But, of course, everyone is different. And some prefer to spend time alone or with their families after a stressful exam period. That’s why you should follow your needs and inclinations, and thus choose this or that teaching style. 

Do you have any hobbies?

I’m into computer games! I have a Sega, X-box, PlayStation 4, Nintendo, and a gaming laptop. I enjoy a compelling character’s motivation, captivating game mechanics, or an unconventional storyline. We can learn a lot from video games and even apply them in teaching. 

What do you mean?

There are platform games – for example, Super Mario – where characters can only go right-left or bottom-top. Although Mario is too linear, there are similar games with different locations and an open world. While some locations are available immediately, others require certain skills and are open only after you defeat a boss, like in Hollow Knight or Ori. The same is true for learning. That’s why I enjoy playing a game or two when I have free time. 

And what else?

I’m also a big fan of reading, be it fiction or fantasy. I also like historical literature, for example, A Retelling of the Myths of Ancient Greece by Stephen Fry. It helps you learn more about other cultures and see the past, whereas fiction books give you interesting ideas about the future. I think that all engineering students read fiction or watched sci-fi movies. 

Why did you decide to apply for the competition?

The answer is simple: I wanted to be recognized by my colleagues. Probably all teachers want to have a reputation. Especially if students appreciate your work, you want to share your practices with others. 

That’s how I decided to apply for this competition, and I also encouraged my colleagues to participate, as well. It’s great that ITMO University began to motivate lecturers, as well, by sharing their professional activities and best practices. I think that teachers are heroes of our time, and we should know their names. 

Did you expect to win?

I did! I worked hard on my application and tried to demonstrate its value not only to teachers but also to the university. I believe that happy students are crucial for the university’s development.

So, you weren’t surprised?

I hoped to win but I didn’t know for sure and sometimes doubted whether I was good enough for this title or not. Probably, it was fifty-fifty. I counted on winning but not much, so as not to get too upset if I failed.

What did winning feel like?

I was proud of my work. Plus, this award is unique as only five people made it to the finals. Generally, I’m proud that I represented our faculty as a young teacher along with experienced colleagues. I’m glad that our university values young specialists and supports them in every way possible. Here, you aren’t treated as someone who’s too young to teach. 

As one of my favorite characters, Geralt of Rivia, says, “with experience comes skill”. I wish all young teachers to feel free to take part in such competitions!