Zo Kreager and another student looking at rocks

Lessons Learned as a Graduate Teaching Assistant

In this article, Zo Kreager (pictured above, left) offers fellow graduate teaching assistants advice based on lessons she has learned as a GTA in Geology and Environmental Geosciences. 

As I prepare for my final semester at NIU, I find myself reflecting on what I have learned as a TA in the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences. In my time here, I have found that all students want their geology teachers to identify random rocks they found because many students rely on their instructors for much more than just teaching course content. Overall, three things stand out as the most important lessons I have learned.

You are the authority in your class; don’t let students or imposter syndrome make you feel differently. 

You are the instructor, you wrote the course policies, and you know better than anyone else what is acceptable for your course. You will run into students that challenge every policy and will try to undermine your authority to benefit themselves. Do not let this break you or make you feel like you are doing something wrong. Follow your policies and know that as long as you do, you are doing nothing wrong. Do not let imposter syndrome allow you to feel like you are not qualified. If you weren’t, your department would not let you teach.

Find Peer Support and a Faculty Member Mentor

Remember you are not alone in this. At times, teaching courses can feel overwhelming, and you feel lost about what to do and how to move forward in a class. This week alone, I felt overwhelmed with the amount of grading, emails that I have not yet had the time to respond to, and a general lack of understanding of this week’s content. Chances are, you are not the only TA in your department feeling the same way. Find someone you can reach out to who can help you feel less alone. Your peers can also help you find solutions to content issues. They may have already found solutions to similar problems or learned from previous graduate students.

Additionally, faculty members have been teaching longer than you. They have institutional knowledge and have run into many of the student concerns that you will face. Using their experience, they can help you navigate the university and student issues. They can also help you find the right resources to address concerns you or your students might have with the course.

Have fun with your course!

For many of you, this might be your only time to teach. Ensure that you do not treat it as something you have to do to get your stipend; instead, think of it as something you get to do that helps you with personal and professional growth. Students can tell when you don’t want to be there, and in return, they don’t want to be there either. Be present and make your courses fun. I’ve learned many more things from my students by making the class more enjoyable and getting them engaged in the content than I would have if I hadn’t taken the time to build a course geared toward the students. This process has led to many more jokes about rocks, both from students and me, in active discussions.  If you are planning on pursuing an academic career, have fun trying new things. Once you are a faculty member, you will have less time to focus on your courses. Consider your time as a TA as an opportunity to try activities and teaching styles that you are curious about, and learn about how you like to teach.

For resources to assist you with teaching and instructional technology, please visit the CITL website. For online, synchronous workshops on teaching and instructional, visit the Upcoming Programs page of the CITL website.

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