The Hardest Job You’ll Ever Have… Part 1

Author: Amanda Arner
(Above, right side)
Part 1 of Amanda Arner’s teaching series.

You put the key in the lock, set your lab manual on the table, and take a look around. This room, this dark, basement room with 6 lab benches, a slightly caustic odor and equipment from the 80s will be where you shape the minds of future scientists. But not just scientists; you teach doctors and nurses, politicians and artists, business people and administrators and everything in between. Whether you have experience or not, teaching any class for the first time can be an anxiety-inducing event. Being a teaching assistant isn’t something graduate students inherently know how to do. In fact, being a good student (or even good in your field!) doesn’t mean that you’ll make a good teacher. The sad fact of the matter is, no one really prepares graduate students for the reality of teaching undergraduates. Most students are handed a key and a lab manual, and told to teach without any further clarification or instruction. You may think you know what to do; you go home and read the lab manual, spend hours prepping for lab and organizing equipment, making copies of notes and handouts, writing assignments and quizzes. But when it comes down to it, when you’re standing in front of 30 students for the first time, all eyes on you, most graduate students are scared out of their mind. And rightly so! Teaching ain’t easy, but it can be a memorable and valuable experience, whether your goal is to become a professor or not.

When I started grad school, I had about 3 years of teaching under my belt; I worked as a science educator at a natural history museum in Florida during college, and fulltime for about 2 years before going back to school. I knew how to talk to groups of children, to get them to listen. I knew all the buzzwords, what sorts of things got their attention, helped them learn. I thought I knew what I was doing when I started my position as a teaching assistant in grad school. Boy, was I wrong. Teaching adults (yes, undergraduate students are actually adults!) is a completely different experience. For one, you could talk to them like adults. You didn’t have to fabricate or brush over certain subjects or ways of describing topics; you could tell it like it is. But at the same time, you don’t want to scare them off. My biggest struggle as a TA is dealing with how to accurately represent the field of science, rather than just teach the facts of the class. Science isn’t necessarily about facts; it’s about poking at the gray areas until you discover the truth, and I felt that was an important part of the field that wasn’t being portrayed well to undergraduates. Most undergraduate classes at both my undergrad and grad institutions were about learning the facts, the black-and-white parts of science, which we all know don’t really exist as we teach them.

So know that I’ve raised the questions, I’m sure you’re thinking, “Well, what’s the answer?!”. Sadly, there isn’t one. All I can do is share with you what I do, as an example of how to start thinking about teaching science from a metacognitive perspective. The thing about teaching is, there are so many different ways to do it, as many or more as there are ways to learn new material. As a teacher trainer, I always try to emphasize to new TAs, “Try a bunch of different things your first couple of semesters, and see what seems right for you.” And it’s true. You can’t expect your first class to be perfect, nor can you expect to teach the same way your whole life. Your teaching style grows and changes with you, your experiences in the classroom, and the types of teachers you have in your career. As a TA, graduate students fill a very special niche, one that not many people realize exist. On the one hand, we are students, absorbing information from primary literature, professional communications and our own experiences in research. But on the other hand, we are teachers, sharing the most basic building blocks of scientific knowledge and understanding with the next generations of global denizens. We are the link between past and present, we are the vector for injecting the curriculum with new and exciting discoveries. We are the guides and mentors who can show the wonder of the process of science to those who have yet to see it. And we are the novices who have no idea what we’re doing, are constantly in a malnourished, ramen-eating state of critical anxiety and disparaging contempt. Yet for all the negative aspects of graduate school, of learning to be both a scientist and a teacher at the same time, we can harness that constant state of learning, or scholarship, and transform it into something worthwhile. We can be the inspiration for the future generations, and help bring university science education to a new level.

OK, now I’ll get off my soapbox. Let’s go all the way back to the beginning; you’re standing at the front of the room, in front of those 30 pairs of eyes boring holes into your head. The clock tick’s to 2. It’s time to start lab. You stand up, clear you’re throat, and begin class.

“Hi everybody, my name is Amanda XX, and I’ll be your teaching assistant for XX class this semester. Here’s a little about myself before we begin…”

The most effective way to reach your students is to prove that you are a real person. Tell them about yourself. Who you are, what you do, where you’re from, what your research is about. Your favorite food, or the name of your dog or cat. Show them that you’re not a robot, you’re a person just like them. I like to tell my students what classes I’m taking as well, so they realize I’m still experiencing the part of college that they are, just on a different level. It’s only when your students trust you and understand you that they’ll be able to learn from you, and I’ve found that this trust can be established in a friendly, casual manner as a teaching assistant. You’re not the big boss, so you’re not scary, but you do have control over their grades, so you should be respected.

After reading through the syllabus together, I usually say something like this:

“I want you guys to know that during class and during office hours, I am here for you. I really do care about whether or not you learn the material in this course, and I want you to do your best. If you invest in this course and use your time wisely, you can get an A, no problem. If you have any questions or problems, or don’t understand something as well as you’d like, please talk to me. I am always available to you, because I want you to be the best student you can be, and I understand that sometimes, that takes a little extra help…”

Investing in your students is all well and good, but telling them that you’re investing in them (and actually following through) is even better. This way, they know up front what you expect from them, how they can get a hold of you, and what sort of relationship you, as the teacher, will expect to have with your students. I cannot stress this enough; Communicate your expectations clearly. Students have a hard time understanding what you’re doing or why you’re doing it unless you tell them. Whatever those expectations may be, make them known! The class should never be about figuring out what the teacher wants; it should be about learning the material and understanding the topics in a broader scientific context. Let them use their brainpower for something worthwhile, instead of wasting it trying to figure out why you said something a certain way, or why you’re telling them to do something they don’t understand. 🙂

Next time, we’ll talk about establishing unwritten rules and understanding the finesse of classroom management skills.

One thought on “The Hardest Job You’ll Ever Have… Part 1

  1. This is great! I hope to start a TA position in a little over a month(!) and I can’t wait to read the rest of your series. For a second there I thought you wrote “show the student’s you’re a robot, just like them.” I was ready to go along 😉

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