What can the Undergrads teach you?

Instagram @gradlifemcgill Photo by @kipunsam.daily

Being a teacher’s assistant (TA) can be hard work. As a TA you’re a font of knowledge, the solution to their problems and the keeper of their GPA. You’re also figuring out things as you go, putting out fires as they happen (hopefully figuratively!) and generally trying to keep up the aura of authority. So whether you are lecturing in a seminar, running tutorials or supervising a lab, like me, it’s as much as learning experience as a teaching experience.

So what have my students taught me? Well, I think you learn different things depending on what kind of teaching you are doing. Fannie described her experience leading seminars and I can only speak to my experience as a TA for a lab course, but here are a few lessons I’ve learned.

Communication: It’s one thing to understand a concept but another one to be able to communicate that concept to a group of people. Not everyone learns or understands concepts in the same way so you have to be able to explain it multiple ways. There is nothing like 20 blank looks to get me to re -evaluate the way I explain things. Instead of giving them the answers I try and guide them towards it, asking them questions to figure out the level of their understanding. It’s a different means of communication. Plus you a trying to manage a group. There are more distractions so you must learn ways of gaining and maintaining the attention of the group, without losing your voice.

Problem Solving: “Why am I getting negative values?” “Is it supposed to be this colour?” TA-ing a lab teaches you how to problem solve on the spot. Often times you don’t know why the values are negative or that, while it’s definitely not supposed to be that colour, you’re not sure why it is. Sometimes, through careful questioning, you can figure out what was done but most of the time it’s a mystery to me as well. Learning to “fix” their mistakes so that they have workable results has been a fun challenge. It’s part of the excitement of the lab, trying to make things work!

Confidence: This is probably the best things my undergrads have taught me. I often feel Luis’s imposter syndrome, but by TA-ing a lab course I’ve come to realize that I actually know things now. I can often fix their problems, answer their questions or teach them my technical tricks. On the other hand you will always get the students that try and test you; in particular they’ll question your grading. This inspired a crisis of confidence when I first started but actually was the best thing. I knew my grading was fair, and the course coordinator supported me, and so I learned to stand by my grades, even if not everyone is happy about it.

Overall I’ve found being a TA a rewarding and sometimes entertaining experience. There are many things to be learned when you become the teacher. And you get to have some good times along the way. The best thing about being a TA is the students you get to meet and interact with. So to all my undergrads, thanks for teaching me some great lessons!

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