TA 101: How to Teach and Learn at the Same Time

By Elizabeth Koza

teaching-assistantGraduate school brings many changes: a new university, residence, friends, and atmosphere. While my undergrad years prepped me for the academic challenges to come, I found myself far from prepared for how to simultaneously exist as both a student and teaching assistant.

I’d never expected to teach or be a teaching assistant as I pursued my masters. The university reserved funding for PhD students, which presented challenges in that you must secure funding for yourself. MA students do not frequently receive funding nor the opportunity to be a teaching assistant. I worked as a glorified secretary during the first year of my program, but craved more, for I recognized my ability to find success in a more challenging position. Prior to the beginning of my second semester, our department coordinator sent a mass email that another department, Asian and Asian American Studies, required teaching assistants for undergraduate courses. I sent a follow up email and eagerly awaited a response. It wasn’t just an opportunity to be a teaching assistant for the first time, but a chance to broaden my academic horizons as well.

The day prior to the start of the semester, I received an email that offered both congratulations and the details of my appointment. I would be a teaching assistant for a large lecture style class of approximately two hundred students that met twice a week. I would need to attend the class on a regular basis, hold office hours, grade exams, and provide help to the students with their projects or essays throughout the semester. Although words cannot describe the excitement I felt in that moment, a tinge of panic began to wreak havoc on my thoughts. Would they respect me? Would they question my ability to function as an educator? How could I help these students, especially since I still found myself in their shoes?

That last question became my immediate source of concern for the impending semester. I still had, and even have, growing up to do. I enjoy going out for drinks, attending concerts, and spending time with friends during the weekend. Many of my students, as I would come to find, frequented the same places. I suppose that is to be expected in a college town. We would make awkward small talk and go about our nights. On one occasion, a student began talking about the class projects – which is the last thing I want to do on a Friday night – before transitioning to talking about music and attempting to buy me a beer. I excused myself to make a phone call and left the bar. That instance made me recognize that I would need to do a variety of things while out that ranged from drinking less to avoiding bars that undergraduates may frequent to remaining in teacher mode despite not being in class. I struggled to remain professional during these times, as well as relax at the end of the work week, but recognized I had to maintain some semblance of the image that I conveyed during class.

For a time, I thought that I couldn’t exist as both student and educator. Meeting with the professor of the course alleviated some concerns in that she believed I would succeed in helping them. She did not say much else except that teaching, too, could exist as a learning experience. I returned to my office puzzled, skeptical, and wholly uncertain as to what she meant. I wouldn’t quite realize the significance of her sentiments until the conclusion of the semester.

My existence as a student, and desire to learn, contributed to my success as a teaching assistant. Prior to the semester, I looked at my two occupations as distinct and that one could not inform the other. Yet, as finals drew to a close, I recognized my earlier thoughts strayed far from the truth. My commitment to higher education and the bettering of myself as an academic provided me with the necessary tools to improve the educational lives of these students.

Being a student did not hinder my abilities to function as a teacher. Being a student did make me more receptive to the struggles of a student at a top research university. Being a teacher is not about providing your students with difficult exams, countless homework assignments, or tedious lectures. Being a teacher is about creating a comfortable atmosphere where you do not only teach, but you learn from your students. I recognized that one must exist as a student with a willingness to learn before they can hope to teach and inspire that same feeling within others.

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