Why be a helper at Software Carpentry workshops?

This post originally appeared on the Software Carpentry website.

“I’m not an expert on R”, “I don’t know any Python”, “I’ve never used Git” - these may be true statements but they should never stop you from helping out at a Software Carpentry workshop.

Even the workshop instructors themselves may not be “experts” - and all the better if they are not!

Experts don’t necessarily make the best teachers. Many have lost sight of - or, worse, patience with - the beginner mindset.

Software Carpentry’s worldwide community of volunteer instructors include experts, near-learners and plenty of people in between. What they share is a willingness to teach their peers. And that’s all a helper really needs - the willingness to lend a hand.

It’s fine to say you don’t know the answer to something, or to call for help with a question that stumps you. Let the instructors deal with anything knotty that crops up.

Most workshop hiccups are much simpler - a typo, issues with the wifi, or learners not being able to locate a downloaded file. Learners might have fallen behind, in which case all they need to get caught up is to be shown the right spot in the online lesson. Or perhaps they overlooked the etherpad link. These are all simple problems that you don’t need to be an expert to fix. Sometimes it’s enough just to be familiar with a Mac or with Windows, so that people using unfamiliar laptops can navigate their way around an operating system.

All kinds of help are welcome at Software Carpentry workshops. Perhaps you can paste challenges into the etherpad. Collect sticky note feedback. Write links on a whiteboard. Point people to the best coffee or lunch place on campus.

It certainly helps if you’ve had time to review what will be taught. That way, you will be quicker to spot a typo or locate the spot where the learner needs to find the lesson. But don’t pretend to know more than you do. Learners will appreciate your honesty.

The main thing is to be friendly and approachable.

Helping at a workshop is a way to see workshops in action. You may be trying to figure out if you’d like to become an instructor yourself. You might even want to have a crack at teaching a section, knowing there are more experienced instructors in the room should you run into problems. You can certainly learn a lot about instructing by watching others. Many helpers do go on to become instructors themselves, reinforcing their own learning by teaching the material to other people.

If you have attended a workshop before, helping may reinforce your own learning. Hearing things explained again can really help consolidate your knowledge. You might also pick up new tricks and tips. A key benefit is helping people get started, feeling you are making a contribution to their learning, and to the learning community within your institution. It might kickstart a new community of practice, or just a networking group for when times get tough and you need to talk your work over with someone who is struggling with the same problems.

So what are you waiting for? FInd a workshop near you and volunteer. You will be made very welcome in what is a great, global community.

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