When Ben Lansky first became a graduate teaching assistant (GTA) in the department of English, he found himself well supported by the faculty, and benefited from several days of orientation before his first teaching assignment. He graded sample essays, role-played possible confrontations with students, and talked about how to craft an authoritative-but-friendly teaching persona.
But when he first stepped in front of a classroom full of students, he realized that he still wasn’t truly prepared for what he was facing.
“I wish that I’d known from the start what to emphasize to the students–there’s so much information to convey to them that at first it’s hard to tell the essential from the inessential,” Lansky said. “I also wish I’d had more preparation with regard to lesson planning. Though I was given very thorough, ready-made lesson plans for every day of the entire course, I had to figure out what worked best by trial and error. I would have benefited from more discussion with experienced educators.”
Now, for the first time, new GTAs will have the opportunity to attend a teaching orientation that will help them practice their techniques and learn how to deal with diverse and complex classrooms full of students. The new orientation is being organized by the OSU Center for Teaching and Learning, and is meant to compliment the general orientation that all graduate students receive from the Graduate School.
The new orientation, offered only to GTAs, will be facilitated by Jessica White and Robin Pappas, assistant directors of the Center for Teaching and Learning, as well as a cohort of GTAs who were nominated by faculty members as being particularly outstanding teachers. The program is modeled on one that White launched in 2008, which was supported by a Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant. That training program was aimed at GTAs teaching introductory biology labs.
“The HHMI grant got me thinking about this,” White said, “and I think it created some momentum on campus. We’ve seen such great success with the biology training program, and there’s been a demand for more of this kind of training. That was always our hope, that we would develop smaller modules that could be expanded.”
The two-day orientation begins in mid September, following the Graduate School’s general orientation. The first day is specifically focused on international GTAs, through a partnership with International Programs and INTO.
“The focus will be cultural,” White said. “Many international graduate students come from educational systems that are very different. They might have a limited understanding of the bacc core, or what communication skills are necessary for a US classroom.”
Even assessing what behavior is appropriate or not can be tricky to navigate for GTAs coming from another country, and considering that these students have to also adjust to their own coursework and new living situation, it can be a lot to ask, White said.
The second day will be a training open to all GTAs, international and domestic. It will focus on instructional policies and procedures, effective instruction skills and teaching resources.
“We know we can’t give TAs everything they need in one session,” White said, “but what we can do is to prepare them for their first week of teaching, and then after that we hope they will attend workshops through the Center for Teaching and Learning.”
Lansky, who will be helping teach during the orientation, said the new orientation will greatly benefit incoming students.
“Too few GTAs receive the thorough preparation and generous support that I did,” he said. “I’ve talked to many GTAs from other departments who began teaching with no experience and no preparation. Not only is this unfair to GTAs (who may be nervous, harried, intimidated, etc), it’s also unfair to their students, who deserve confident and effective instruction.”
For some first-time GTAs, simply learning how to facilitate a class discussion or prepare a syllabus is a daunting task.
“It is anxiety provoking, to say the least,” White said.
Having well-trained, prepared GTAs doesn’t just benefit the graduate students.
“It improves the quality of the undergraduate experience,” White said. “As class sizes get bigger, GTAs are teaching more courses. These are important roles, and we need to have our GTAs prepared to be good instructors.”
Brenda McComb, dean of the Graduate School, said giving GTAs specialized training will add to their success as graduate students.
“If GTAs all enter the fall term with a common set of skills and a community of connections, then they will have a greater likelihood of being successful,” she said, “and if they are successful then the undergraduates with whom they’re working will also benefit.”
Departments have specialized orientation for their incoming GTAs in addition to the general Graduate School orientation. White said this voluntary instructional orientation is meant “not to supplant that but to unburden departments from having to deal with university-wide information,” so they can focus on topics specific to the discipline or department.
This year, there are spots for 350 GTAs in the training session. White would love to see all those spots will be taken, and hopes if demand increases, the Center for Teaching and Learning can find the funding to increase the scope of the training in coming years.
Kaitlin Bonner, another GTA helping with the orientation, said she hopes graduate students will come away with more confidence.
“It is really stressful being a TA for the first time, so I hope (the orientation) will help make the first TAing experience a little smoother and more fun,” she said. “I really like teaching and I just want others to have a good experience doing so.”
~ Theresa Hogue