Teaching: it’s not a paycheck, it’s a responsibility

Me (left), sorting through aquatic arthropod specimens with some ecology students at Lac-Saint-Louis

I’ve been extremely fortunate to be a teaching assistant throughout my graduate career, both as a Master’s student and here at McGill where I have been leading introductory zoology (Organisms II) and ecology (St Lawrence Ecosystems) labs.

Teaching – working with, supporting, and learning from students – is something I love to do.It’s a big part of the reason I decided to quit my old desk job and pursue an academic career. I get a real kick out of seeing students get excited about course content, watching them have “aha!” moments when a new concept finally clicks, or hearing them say, “thanks for your help”.

As a person who takes teaching seriously, I get distressed by what I often perceive as the laissez-faire (or worse, the I-don’t-care) attitude of some TAs towards their teaching duties.

It’s not just a paycheck, it’s a responsibility

If you’re planning to be an academic, then teaching will almost certainly be part of your job duties. Use your time as a TA to develop your teaching skills. If you really can’t stand having to interact with students, then maybe you should re-evaluate your career goals.

I fully appreciate that grad students are a broke bunch and that most of us need a job to keep ourselves financially afloat. BUT: if you don’t love teaching, or at least like it a little (even just TRYING to like it would count), then get a job at Tim Horton’s and let someone else give teaching a try. You’re not doing yourself, the professor running the class, or the students any favours.

Your students are paying to receive a quality education from supportive and competent instructors: that includes you. Most of your students genuinely want to learn and succeed. As a TA, it’s your job to help them do this. Take that responsibility seriously.

Getting better

So what if you really DO want to teach and you have a real desire to do right by your students, but you don’t feel comfortable doing it? Your students are grumbling and you leave your lab sessions feeling frustrated and overwhelmed – what can you do?

Go to a workshop

McGill offers a supportive environment for us up-and-coming instructors. Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) has a web page listing different internal and external resources at our disposal. A number of workshops, seminars and special presentations are available on campus throughout the year. For example, TLS and Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (GPS) are offering “Learning to Teach: A Professional Development Workshop for Graduate Students and Post-doctoral Fellows at McGill” on November 12, 2011. Registration is not yet open, but mark the date on your calendars.

Watch and learn

Do you ever hear students gushing about how great a particular class is? As an undergrad, I had one prof who made his classes come alive with photographs and stories of his experiences in the field; I retained a tremendous amount of material and enjoyed every lecture.  The success of any course (or lab) may have little to do with the content, and a great deal to do with the instructor’s teaching and communication skills.

Try to sit in on the lectures of successful teachers, and observe. What tools are used to communicate course content? What is the instructor’s body language like? Voice? Classroom layout? How does s/he interact with, engage, and get feedback from students during the class? While teaching may come more naturally to the instructor than to you, you can still note and try to adopt some of their techniques.

Ask for help

You could also try a more active approach: go to someone you think is a good teacher and ask for help. See if they can share some of their strategies, and request a constructive critique of your current approach. Use events like your own in-class presentations or departmental seminars as opportunities to get feedback from good teachers on your presentation and communication style. Remember: whether you’re delivering a conference talk or a lecture, the same skill set applies.

Read a bit

As a grad student, you should be accustomed to doing piles of reading in order to stay on top of new concepts, techniques and theories in your field. You know this is important to keep you at the top of your game, and to improve the quality of your research. Why not apply the same mindset to your teaching? There is no shortage of books, periodicals and newsletters devoted to the subject of teaching in higher education. Check some of them out.

The learning never stops

Remember that teaching is a skill, and that learning to teach must be an ongoing process. We all have to start somewhere, and we all can get better. Be honest with yourself about your current abilities, and do your best to improve areas of weakness. Get feedback from your students, your peers and your mentors, and be open to making some changes to your approach. It will make the teaching experience more enjoyable and successful for you AND your students.

2 responses to “Teaching: it’s not a paycheck, it’s a responsibility”

  1. Great article, Crystal! For those who can invest a bit more time and take a course, I’d recommend ‘Teaching and Learning in Higher Education’ (EDPH 689).

  2. awesome tips – continuing your education as a teacher should definitely be a priority – awesome article!

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