This semester I began my journey not only as the SGSAH blogger and a 2nd-year PhD student AND a wife…I began GTA-ing.
Being a Graduate Teaching Assistant had been my M.O. (loving the acronyms here) since I first experienced teaching University students during my undergrad when I was a Peer Facilitator. This role had me teaching 1-2 first-year courses per semester, and taught me invaluable skills like presenting, lesson planning, and problem-solving. Having office hours, being asked ‘how do I Uni?’ questions, helping first-years navigate their way through their degrees was so my jam.
I thought that because of my experience with being a Peer Facilitator I would be an old pro at GTA-ing, but there were a number of differences that made it a very different experience. For one, I am no longer an undergraduate, I am trying to complete a PhD which is far more time-consuming and stressful. Secondly, I am doing this overseas and teaching students in an undergraduate system very different than the American liberal arts education I went through. Finally, I am teaching not only how-to-Uni, but a subject that is not my specialisation, and am therefore learning as I go along.
In the spirit of these revelations and to maybe help future GTAs, I have compiled a list of some of my biggest tips and suggestions based on my GTA-ing experience so far.
1.Take advantage of the opportunity for self-reflection.
There are times where I will be talking about something to my class and they start getting that panicked or glazed look on their eyes, so I ask a check-in question like, ‘what do I mean by X?’ By checking in with my class I’m reminded of what it was like to be in their position, to be intimidated by word counts or footnote formatting or lots, and lots, and lots, of reading. Sometimes having to explain something from the ground-up makes me take another look at my own methods of reading or writing and catch where I’ve maybe gotten sloppy or developed some bad habits.
2. Give yourself more time per week than you’d anticipate.
I was told that I was getting paid for 30 minutes per week of prep time for my classes and an hour per week of contact time, and two hours over the course of the semester for training. However, having not taken the course before myself, I spend at least two hours each week just watching back the lectures in advance of my tutorial, as well as another 2-3 hours reading the primary and secondary sources my students are expected to read and making notes so I can make a plan for our class. There are also occasionally emails needing responded to, posts in the online forum needing made, and students wanting to meet before deadlines to discuss their outlines. In total, I easily spend 3x what I get paid each week on my GTA responsibilities. I enjoy what I am doing and do not mind spending this time to make my tutorials a success, but it is more time-consuming than I initially planned for and expected. This isn’t even factoring in the time commitment when essay-marking happens. Just be sure to give yourself plenty of time between GTA duties and your PhD so you don’t find yourself overwhelmed.
3. Talk to other GTAs teaching your subject.
Checking in with my fellow GTAs has saved me so many times! Be it a question I received from a student that I’m not entirely sure I know the answer to, to seeing if I’m structuring my lessons in a way consistent with the other tutorials, using the GTA community around me made my tutorial prep way less stressful than it could have been. Take particular advantage of the knowledge of GTAs who have been doing this for some time- they will be able to offer their own advice and tips for a successful and positive GTA experience.
4. Address issues early.
If you have a student who is consistently not showing up, or perhaps one who is being disruptive and difficult, address it straightaway. It can be difficult to backtrack once certain issues have progressed for some time. It is always best to talk to your course convenor at the earliest instance something is amiss. Same goes for any logistical issues you might be having- does the computer in your tutorial room not work? Don’t wait until you absolutely need to use the computer for a lesson to bring it up, address it early enough that if more drastic action like a new room booking needs to be made it can be done.
5. Treat them like adults.
This one may seem like a given but it is so easily overlooked when standing at the front of a group of people and talking through something. Be aware of the language you use when teaching and the way you respond to questions or their own comments. There is even the possibility some of your students might be older than you, or have had their own careers before choosing to take your course. Finding the fine line between being an authority and in control of your class or coming off overbearing and condescending can be challenging, but sometimes practising out loud or chatting with another GTA friend can help you understand how you are being perceived.
6. Keep track of how much time you’re spending.
As mentioned in point 2, I spend a large chunk of unpaid time on my GTA position. This is partially because it is my first semester doing it, and partially because it is a course I didn’t take myself so there is a learning curve. While this may be challenging and impact my PhD just now, by tracking the time I spend on my GTA work I’ll be able to recognise if, over time, I settle into a quicker pace, or if I’m still spending too much of my time on the role. If you find you are devoting an abnormally high amount of time to the role prep and understanding, having that track record will help you and the course convener find out how they can better help you do the role more efficiently.
There are so many other things I am sure I’ll learn while in this position, but for now these are my first few month take-aways and I hope they help you! If you have any suggestions for new GTAs, Tweet us, comment, or email! We’d love to know!
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