Spotlight on Graduate Teaching
“She’s very knowledgeable in everything she teaches and genuinely cares about your ability to learn it.”
As many undergraduates and professors alike will tell you, Teaching Assistants and Assistant Instructors are far more than just a helping hand in the classroom. From leading thought-provoking discussions to organizing class trips to assisting students outside of class, TAs and AIs are a vital part of what makes a University of Texas education so rich.
While their duties vary depending on the professor or class, graduate students who serve in these roles are doing the university—and themselves—a great service.
“Teaching Assistants and Assistant Instructors are vital to the teaching mission at The University of Texas at Austin”, says Steve Leslie, Executive Vice President and Provost of the university. “Not only do they support our faculty, they enhance the undergraduate experience and gain valuable skills themselves.”
Teaching assistants, or TAs, aid professors in a variety of ways. Their responsibilities often include running discussion and lab sessions, grading papers and holding office hours. Assistant Instructors, or AIs, hold even more responsibility. They are graduate students who have formerly served as TAs and are supplementary instructors who essentially run their own class. Though they are supervised by a professor, AIs have control of their class structure and content.
The Graduate School at The University of Texas at Austin supports TAs and AIs in a variety of ways. In addition to gaining on-the-job experience and a monthly stipend, these graduate students are often eligible to receive tuition assistance, insurance benefits and special parking permits, among other benefits.
Yet aside from these perks, many TAs and AIs will tell you that they chose to teach to further their own knowledge about their chosen discipline and to pass it along to others. Especially for those who hope to teach in the future, being a TA or AI is an excellent way to learn more about pedagogy and the connection between teaching and research.
“Graduate students are the faculty of tomorrow,” says Victoria Rodríguez, Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Studies. “Their experience as TAs and AIs prepares them for that role. Faculty infuse their own teaching with knowledge gained in their research and also enhance their research by incorporating feedback and reactions of the students in their classrooms. Graduate student assistants learn these skills while they are here, under the guidance of experienced faculty and will be better professors in the future because of it.”
Kerk Kee, an AI who is seeking his Ph.D. in Organizational Communication believes the opportunity to teach has been a way for him to grow personally. “Teaching is learning,” says Kee. “The opportunity to teach something is also the opportunity to learn something."
For Kate Walker, a Science Education graduate student who has been a TA for seven years, learning to teach has always been a top priority. “I knew right when I got to graduate school that the teaching part was really important,” says Walker. “I TA’ed right away…I was really interested in figuring out the best way to teach.”
In addition to gaining teaching experience, these TAs and AIs are impacting the undergraduate population at UT in a real way. Many undergraduates say they felt a real connection to the graduate students who taught or helped teach their classes.
Crystal LeBeouf, a recent UT graduate who is now a graduate student herself at Texas State University, had Kate Walker as a TA. She says that Walker was more to her than a TA. From giving advice on graduate school to setting her up with personal contacts, LeBeouf says that Walker went way above and beyond. “She really helped me navigate my way to where I am now,” says LeBoeuf. “I really owe a lot to her…she’s been an amazing mentor.”
“What I would like to do is teach, and I have students right now,” adds LeBoeuf. “Recently, it was National Mentoring week, and I took time to tell all my classes about her and recommend that they find someone like her.”
Graduate students also provide a fresh perspective on the material. Dr. Kay McMurry, a professor of Biological Sciences, says that having Walker as a TA was a huge help in reorganizing some of the course content. “She’s made my job a lot easier,” says McMurry. “I credit her for being the one who’s made this such a collaborative effort. She has numerous ideas about how to do things in lecture…she’s had a lot of input on handouts, on the way things are structured and what the exercises are…she’s re-written labs, come up with ideas on how we can do things differently to streamline our goals, to focus on what we’re trying to teach the students.”
But graduate students don’t learn how to be teachers overnight. Aside from learning on the job, many TAs and AIs want to expand upon their teaching knowledge outside the classroom. To do so, many graduate instructors at UT are turning to such on-campus resources as the Division of Instructional Innovation and Assessment (DIIA).
Under the umbrella of DIIA is the Graduate Student Instructor Program, which is designed not only to help graduate students become more effective teachers, but better students and professionals, as well. The GSI program includes ASPECTS, short for “Advancing Students' Professional Excellence with Certificates in Teaching Series.” The ASPECTS series hosts free-of-charge classes throughout the year on a variety of topics aimed at giving graduate students the tools to become better instructors.
Kerk Kee is an especially enthusiastic proponent of DIIA and ASPECTS classes. Having taught an ASPECTS session himself on Public Speaking, Kee, who was this year’s recipient of DIIA’s Graduate Student Instructor Award, says he believes in what the program is doing.
With their already full schedules of coursework and research, why do TAs and AIs devote so much of themselves to their teaching work? Says Kee. “I really enjoy working with students. I like teaching—I think it’s an important job.”
Whether graduate students choose to pursue a career in the professorate or are simply interested in gaining valuable skills and working with students, the opportunity to be a TA or an AI can be an integral part of the graduate experience. If you are a current UT graduate student and are interested in becoming a TA, talk to the graduate coordinator in your department to learn about teaching opportunities.
If you are interested in becoming a TA, talk to the graduate coordinator in your department to learn about teaching opportunities.
Feature story by Lauren Edwards and Kathleen Mabley.
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