GTA training helps new teachers get grounded

GTA Tim Pusack (center, standing) teaches students how to extract DNA from strawberries. Pusack said preparing GTAs before they step into the classroom is important. (photo: Theresa Hogue)

Tim Pusack grew up surrounded by a family of teachers, so it’s perhaps not surprising that he has a passion for being in the classroom. The Connecticut native’s parents are high school teachers, and many other family members work in education, so he was on the receiving end of plenty of pedagogical conversations as a kid.

Now he’s putting all that to work as he teaches other Oregon State University graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) the ins and outs of being an instructor. He is one of a dozen GTAs nominated by their colleges to take part in this year’s GTA orientation, offered Sept. 13-14 through the Center for Teaching and Learning. The orientation will help new GTAs practice their techniques and learn how to deal with diverse and complex classrooms.

Pusack has a deep love of science, and received a bachelor’s in natural sciences at Colgate University before spending time in Boston doing genetics work on muscular dystrophy. When he decided to pursue a PhD, he chose to move to the West Coast to explore a new area of the country, and to live near enough to the Pacific to indulge his love of scuba diving.

That’s when he connected with OSU’s Professor Mark Hixon, who was looking for a graduate student interested in both genetics and ecology to conduct research on coral reefs.

“It seemed like the perfect opportunity to come out to Oregon,” Pusack said.

As a graduate student, Pusack has not only enjoyed working on important research projects, but has tested the waters as a GTA as well.

New GTA Orientation

The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) is holding separate orientation for new Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) —for GTAs who are new to OSU.
Day One, Thursday, Sept. 13, is specifically for International GTAs new to OSU as of Fall 2012 and will include information targeted to enhancing their experience in uniquely U.S./Oregon classrooms.
Day Two, Friday, Sept. 14, is for all GTAs new to OSU as of Fall 2012. 
Orientation sessions will cover the foundations needed for working effectively in classes with OSU students: OSU policies, teaching and learning concepts, strategies for communicating effectively with students, and more. To register 
For more information

Pusack felt prepared before teaching his first lab course. GTA training is mandatory in his college, and he also sought out other learning opportunities, including teaching courses offered by Jessica White, assistant director for co-curricular learning with the Center for Teaching and Learning. But nothing could quite prepare him for the daunting feeling of a room’s attention fully focused on him.

The first time Pusack stepped into a classroom as a teacher, rather than a student, he was faced with a roomful of silent pupils, all staring at him. Suddenly, he realized that he was the one in control, and the feeling was a little intimidating.

“I paused for a second and realized that I was pretty nervous, having everyone rely on me to lead the class.”

But after a few minutes, Pusack began to enjoy the experience.

“As I get into teaching a class and get into the flow, I really enjoyed talking to students, probing them with questions and really trying to challenge them as much as I could.”

Now, Pusack’s focus is in bringing out the best in students and creating an atmosphere where learning is fun, even while it’s hard work.

“They trust me that they can make mistakes, that it’s okay to be a learner, and we’re going to work through this together,” Pusack said. “I’m going to set you up to succeed and not punish you for failure.”

When he completes his doctorate in zoology in the next year, Pusack hopes to find a position that allows him to continue his research work, while also putting him in the classroom as much as possible.

“My creativity, my inspiration lies in figuring different ways to teach, and getting students excited about learning. I really want to find a position that has an emphasis on that.”

Sara Schmitt is another GTA fellow gearing up for the GTA workshop this fall. Active learning is something that Schmitt holds up as the ideal way to teach. Her model was a GTA who led a discussion session for her African history course. He was from Kenya, and brought his lessons to life using demonstrations of food preparation, dance and dress, which led to dynamic group discussions.

Now a GTA herself, Schmitt often thinks back to that class, and to the way that her teacher’s approach made the classroom experience come to life.

“In my classes, I try to model this ‘active learning’ technique as much as possible, by engaging students in interesting independent and group activities (e.g., role playing, discussions) and applying course concepts to relevant real-life examples,” Schmitt said.

Schmitt is pursuing a doctorate in Human Development and Family Sciences under adviser Megan McClelland. She received her undergraduate degree from University of Wisconsin- Madison.

Teaching is part of her workload as a doctoral student, and although she was nervous, and even terrified, when she first stepped in front of a class, she said she got plenty of support from College of Public Health and Human Sciences faculty, and felt well prepared.

“I think the most valuable thing I’ve learned is to be true to my individual teaching style, and not try to be someone I’m not,” she said. “I’ve learned that it is okay to not know the answers to everything.  I feel comfortable now telling students that I don’t know the answer to his/her question, but I will find it and report back.”

Schmitt’s primary focus in class is the student-instructor interaction. She makes an effort to learn her students’ names and frequently checks in via email, or offers opportunities for meetings. She also demands class participation to make sure students feel engaged with the material they’re learning.

While balancing teaching and working on her own degree can be difficult, the experience of being in front of a class is definitely worth it to Schmitt.

“The best part about teaching for me is observing student growth in a particular topic or course,” she said. “I love observing and being a part of those ‘a-ha!’ moments that students experience.”

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