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Becoming a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA)
Stepping into the role of a graduate teaching assistant marks a very important transition in your life. Yes, you’re still a student in your field, but you’ve become enough of an “expert" to start sharing your knowledge and teaching others. Also, if you’re thinking about making teaching or research a full time career, a teaching assistantship will help you determine if that’s really a good choice for you.
Even if you plan to leave the world of academia after getting your graduate degree, you’ll pick up a lot of other useful skills as a GTA – such as how to communicate with people from a wide range of backgrounds, how to feel comfortable and confident when speaking in public, and how to convey technical or complex material to an audience that has a limited background in your field of study. All of these skills are extremely useful, no matter what career path you finally choose to take.
So, while it is definitely exciting, your first assignment as a graduate teaching assistant can also be a little scary – especially if you have no teaching experience. Here are ten tips for helping alleviate some of those fears and for learning how to use this position as a gateway to your professional career.
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1. Know What’s Expected of You
Depending on your field of study and your university, there are numerous different duties that may be assigned to a graduate teaching assistant. However, most of these assignments generally fall into one of the following three categories.
- No Actual Classroom Duties – While many would argue that it’s not really a “teaching" assistantship if you’re not going to actually be in the classroom, many graduate programs like to ease their new teaching assistants into the roll with non-teaching duties. These duties generally include things like grading, holding office hours to answer student questions and/or proctoring exams.
- Lead Problem Sessions, Labs or Discussion Groups Only – This is a very common type of assistantship at large universities. Instead of having full responsibility for a class, you may just be required to lead smaller sections once or twice a week for a professor who conducts lectures to a large group the rest of the week.
- Full Responsibility of Your Own Class – Generally, this type of assignment is reserved for graduate teaching assistants who already have experience in the classroom. However, depending on your university and field of study, you could be thrown into this right away.
As soon as you can, find out which type of assignment you will be given. Then, if it falls into one of the first two categories above, make an appointment with the lead professor for the class. In addition to finding out exactly what is expected from you, also ask for a copy of the course syllabus and any other relevant material that the professor plans to hand out.
On the other hand, if you are being given full responsibility for teaching your own class, you may have to jump a few more hurdles. First, find out who is in charge of managing graduate teaching assistants. This person may be a professor in the department or may simply be the department’s administrative assistant. Speak to this person and be sure to get a copy of the textbook for the course as well as an outline of material that must be covered during the term.
You may still be required to write your own course syllabus, but the department will probably already have a list of topics that should be mastered in this course. Since many entry-level courses are prerequisites for later classes, this is extremely important. If your department doesn’t have such a list of required topics available, make appointments with other professors who have taught the course in the past. They will generally be more than happy to guide you here, and point out which sections of the textbook are mandatory for the course. In fact, they’ll appreciate that you took the time to be so thorough!
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2. Being Nervous Is Natural
It’s OK – go ahead and be nervous. And, don’t be afraid to admit you are. If you’re a natural introvert or even if you just don’t have much experience speaking in public, the first time you step foot into a classroom can be positively terrifying. Unfortunately, some try to compensate for this by taking on a cold demeanor to try to appear “in control." This, in turn, distances you from your students and can make them leery of interacting or asking questions.
Another common mistake made by new graduate teaching assistants is to take the “ostrich approach." You know what I mean – we’ve all had professors like this. Instead of facing the class and looking out into their faces, these teachers focus on the board for the entire session – writing away while the class stares at their backs. If you can’t see the class, then they won’t be looking at you, right? You can just pretend they’re not there!
It doesn’t take long for the class to pick up on the fact that you’re pretending they’re not there, and that’s actually pretty offensive. After all, your job is supposed to be teaching them – not talking to the board. This approach will distance your students even more than the “cold" approach, causing them to quickly lose attention in both you and the material being discussed.
Instead, take a deep breath and look out into your class. It’s OK to admit to them that you’re new and a little nervous. In fact, since you’ll probably be teaching an entry-level class, many of your students will also be new to the university – it’s likely that many of them will also be both nervous and excited as well. In any case, it’s better for your students to think you’re nervous than to think you don’t care.
Also, remember this isn’t high school. All of your students will be adults, and they’ll appreciate your honesty. I know it’s hard to believe now, but after a few minutes, your nervousness will fade and then you can get down to the business of teaching.
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3. Prepare Before Class
Because the classroom assignments given to graduate teaching assistants are generally entry-level courses, some people feel like they don’t really need to prepare – that they can just walk into class and “wing it." Don’t fall into this trap!
Always spend at least 10-15 minutes reviewing the material you plan to cover before walking through that classroom door. For your first few teaching sessions, you’ll probably want to spend even more. Some prefer to do this immediately before going to class, but I recommend preparing the night before – or at least several hours before class. That way, the material can sit in the back of your mind for a little bit and you may think of some additional points you want to mention when class time arrives.
Also, if you assign homework or if you will be answering questions on homework assigned by the course’s lead professor, make sure you are completely familiar with the homework. For math and science GTAs, this means you should actually do the homework, too! Because of your expertise, it won’t take you that long to do, but it will make you much more prepared when students have questions.
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4. Make Office Hours – and KEEP Them
No matter what type of assignment you have as a graduate teaching assistant, you should schedule regular times throughout the week during which you will be available for “walk in" students who have questions or need extra help. After deciding on these hours, let your students know when they will be. Also, post the hours on your office door – or on your desk if you share an office with several other GTAs. Treat these office hours as a significant job responsibility. Try not to cancel or reschedule them without ample warning.
Suppose one of your scheduled office hours sessions is from 4:00 – 5:00 pm on Friday. If no one shows up after the first 15 minutes, it can be very tempting to duck out early – especially because it’s Friday. But, don’t do it. Remember, this is a job – a real job with responsibilities. If you tell your students that you are going to be in your office at certain times, then you have an obligation to actually be there for them. Wouldn’t you expect the same from your professors?
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5. Share Tips That Help You as a Student
You may not have as much teaching experience as the seasoned professors and instructors in your department, but you do have something else working in your favor – you’re still a student (and a working one, at that). You know what it’s like to have to juggle your classes, work, and your private life. And, considering the fact that you managed to get your undergraduate degree and are now in grad school, you must have done something right.
If you have tips or strategies of your own that you use to study for tests – or even just to get through a long day packed with classes – share them with your students. Not only will they benefit from your experience, but they’ll respect your position a bit more because “you’ve been there and done that."
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6. Conduct Mid-Term Teaching Evaluations
It’s fairly common practice nowadays for students to evaluate graduate teaching assistants at the end of each term. This type of feedback can help you evaluate your style and methods before embarking on your next assignment, but it’s a bit too late to help with the current one!
Instead of waiting for the end of the term, create an evaluation form and pass it out to your students sometime in the middle of the semester or quarter. It doesn’t have to be a huge affair – just include a few (less than 10) open-ended questions that ask students to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, what you could do better, what has helped them most, and so forth. Then, read through them with an open mind to see if there are any changes you can make right away that will improve your students’ learning experience.
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7. Be Friendly, but Maintain Boundaries
It’s very likely that you’ll be close in age to many of your students and have similar likes and dislikes. So it’s quite natural to start thinking of some of them as friends – especially if you are not the main instructor for the course and your job mainly consists of holding weekly problem or discussion sessions. However, tread very carefully here. No matter what your GTA duties are, you still hold a position of authority. Never compromise that.
While you do want to project a professional friendliness and have an approachable manner, don’t allow yourself to be thought of as “one of the gang." If you’re invited to dinner, parties, concerts or other social events by your students, politely decline. And, never ever even consider dating one of your students. If you really do meet someone that you want to get to know better outside of class, wait until the term is well over and all grades have been officially recorded.
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8. Talk With Other TAs
Make a point of meeting and talking to other graduate teaching assistants in your department – and in other departments as well. You can learn a lot from their experiences. Plus, it’s nice to have a sympathetic ear when you have one of those “bad class" days. Just remember, if you’re going to share your rants, return the favor by listening and sympathizing with their horror stories as well.
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9. Be Yourself – Develop Your Own Style
While it’s great to get tips and ideas from seasoned professors and other graduate teaching assistants, don’t forget to interject your own style and personality in the classroom. As you gain more experience, you’ll learn what works and what doesn’t, but don’t be afraid to try something new! Some of those new ideas may backfire, so you probably want to be a little careful and not introduce too many “creative" ideas at once. But, definitely, you’ll get a much better response from being yourself rather than trying to mimic a perfect copy of someone else – even if that someone else is a professor you greatly admire.
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10. Start Building Your Portfolio Now
No one is a graduate teaching assistant forever, no matter how much you love the job. One day, you’ll be finished with school and looking for a job with that fresh new graduate degree in hand. And, while the degree might get you an interview, potential employers will be happier to see some work experience on your resume – especially if you plan to go into a teaching or research field. The job hunt will go a lot easier if you start building your portfolio now.
When you write a course syllabus or a final exam, keep a copy and add it to your portfolio. Did a student take the time to send you a note, thanking you for your help? Keep that, too. And those mid-term evaluations we discussed earlier? You guessed it – toss them in a large envelope and keep close to your other portfolio material.
Keeping all these things serves two purposes. First, potential employers may want to look at samples of teaching materials that you created as well as feedback from your students. You can always go through the documents later and pick out the ones you want to “show off."
Secondly – and perhaps more importantly – you’re also going to need letters of recommendation from your professors when you’re searching for jobs. While your professors should be able to speak easily about your research and academic capabilities, most will probably have no idea what to say about your teaching abilities or they’ll simply say something generic and vague.
Their letters of recommendation will stand out a lot more if they speak very specifically about your teaching accomplishments. When asking for such a letter, you can also offer to show your teaching portfolio to your professors so they can see for themselves how you have grown and matured – and they can incorporate this very specific information into their recommendation. These extra details really do make a hiring board sit up and take notice.
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While these tips are – by no means – an exhaustive list, hopefully they will give you a better idea of what is generally expected of graduate teaching assistants and what you can do to make the whole experience better, both for you and your students. Of course, if you have your own tips and experiences to share, we’d love to hear them. Leave a note in the Comments section – that’s right, share with the class!
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References, Resources and Image Credits
Guidelines for Graduate Teaching Assistantships and Instructional Assistants at The George Washington University, http://www.gwu.edu/~academic/Academic_Policies/pdf/GTA_and_IA_Guidelines_(2).pdf
Images (in order of appearance in article)
- 3D-Teacher: sxc.hu/beni_bb
- Student_SRB: sxc.hu/srbichara
- anm_cat_006: morgueFile.com/bosela
- Clock: morgueFile.com/markmiller
- Pencil and Eraser: sxc.hu/sachyn
- Portfolio/Business Folder: sxc.hu/djeyewater