Notes from a Previously Nervous GTA

This guest post is part of our continuous GTA series, where current and former graduate teaching assistants across Scottish HEIs discuss their experiences, thoughts and/or concerns about GTA practice. Here, University of Stirling PhD researcher Lorna Wallace (who recently submitted her thesis!) looks back at her time as a GTA in English literature and offers advice to current and future GTAs who, like her, might find themselves a bit nervous or unsure.

During the second year of my PhD I had the opportunity to teach a tutorial group on the first year English course. This was a course I took myself as an undergraduate so it felt like a full circle moment, marking just how far I’d come, but I was scared of messing it up. What if I was revealed as a fraud because a student asked me something I didn’t know? What if they refused to speak at all?

I felt completely unprepared and under-qualified. I attended a one-day Teaching Assistant Training session and had a two-hour essay marking workshop with the module coordinator before being let loose on a group of students. Was this sufficient training to run a class on my own? Not really, honestly. In order to make up for the lack of formal training I received, I sought advice from academics and GTA’s with experience. I took full advantage of their willingness to talk me through their own pedagogical techniques and I asked to observe a couple of tutorials (which I highly recommend doing, if it’s an option!).

During my first class I quickly realized that my initial fears were either unfounded or fixable. The students weren’t trying to trip me up; they just wanted to learn from me. And while there was an issue with getting them to engage in conversation, I quickly abandoned trying to speak to them as one large group and instead broke them down into smaller groups. Once the pressure of not speaking to the entire room was removed, they started engaging with each other. I was then able to go round and speak to them more personally.

I initially thought that the most important thing was familiarity with the material but knowing how to teach is just as important. Sure, I needed to have read all of the novels, plays, and poems, but I didn’t need to be an expert on them. Rather, I needed to know how to teach people who potentially didn’t enjoy the texts (looking at you Hard Times) and probably struggled to understand them in the context of theory. The first step in teaching anyone anything is figuring out their prior knowledge about the subject and meeting them there. There’s no use in a teacher being an expert if they’re unable to communicate that expertise.

Seminar prep. One book lies open in front of a laptop and next to a printed out sheet of a lesson plan.
Prepping for my upcoming seminar.

Before my depth of knowledge was required, I needed to teach my class the basics of textual analysis. I’d set a few passages from the text and I’d get the groups to examine the passages in detail using questions I supplied as prompts. They’d bounce ideas around and then I was there to offer tailored advice to each group. I found group work afforded me the chance to speak to every student and it encouraged the shy people to participate, but each class is different so I’m glad I explored different teaching methods before starting.

Some academics love to incorporate technology and visual aids into their teaching and find that things like PowerPoint presentations make things more interesting. Others have the class sit in a circle and then they sit amongst them, prompting a full class discussion but in a less formal way (because it’s less like the high school dynamic of having the teacher at the front of the class). While I love that idea, I knew that I could pass as an undergrad so I wanted to mark myself as the authority figure. I found that taking the place at the head of the class but then moving amongst them during their group work allowed me the perfect balance of respected but approachable.

The other thing to remember is that many undergrads, and first years in particular, often don’t really understand how university courses work, and I used this to build my confidence. The students didn’t distinguish between the lecturers and GTAs. This confusion is understandable given that some of the lectures also taught tutorials. To my students I wasn’t an inexperienced graduate student, I was just another academic. I found this really helpful in allaying my nerves. They treated me like I knew what I was doing and that helped me to fake my confidence until I did feel confident.

A blue mug that has an icon of a crown and says 'Keep Calm and Carry On Teaching' sits in front of an open book. A pair of glass sits on top of the book.
Photo by Seema Miah on Unsplash

My other fears revolved around issues outside of the classroom. Specifically, taking too long preparing for classes and marking essays badly. All essays are cross examined, though, so there’s no chance of messing up there. However, both prep and marking took longer than I expected, meaning I was occasionally working for free (this is a whole separate issue that is too big for this blog post). I had to just bite the bullet with marking taking more hours than I was being paid for, but I quickly realized that I could massively cut down on prep hours. Through doing my PhD I had learned how to skim read effectively and I made liberal use of it in reading the texts, articles, and theory for classes. Putting this skill to use was actually incredibly satisfying because it demonstrated just how much I’d improved since struggling to understand Sophocles and Aristotle when taking the course as a first year myself.

When I look back now I don’t think about the moments of awkward silence when no one wanted to speak or the too many hours spent marking. I think of how rewarding it was to help students understand concepts they were struggling with and how fulfilling it was for me to teach Julius Caesar (the only text on the course in my subject area) and for them (at least some of them!) to enjoy it.

Lorna Wallace is a final year PhD student at the University of Stirling in the department of Literature and Languages. Her doctoral research examines how early modern history plays test the idealized Ciceronian conception of duty against the harsh realities of the political world. She is particularly interested in how history plays utilize entertainment and pedagogy to instil and interrogate these dutiful ideals. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @LookingForLorna.

If you would like to write a guest post for the SGSAH blog, email Danielle.Schwertner@glasgow.ac.uk

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