Teaching Assistantship as Teaching Preparation

This month, we will be exploring teaching assistantship as teaching preparation. Our guest editor, Joseph Topornycky, has curated the first part of this edition of Edubytes. Joseph is a manager of graduate student programs with the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology (CTLT).

A teaching assistantship can be an important and beneficial part of a graduate student’s academic and professional development, or it can be a tedious and unrewarding task that provides little more than financial support that is otherwise deliberately minimized.

Realizing the deeper benefits of a TAship requires commitment from the student’s research supervisor, the instructor of the course the grad student will be TAing in, and the graduate student themselves. This commitment comes in the form of time and space to engage in professional development, as well as opening and engaging with opportunities to try different aspects of the teaching role, such as giving guest lectures, planning lessons, and facilitating lab or discussion sections.

The rewards for this investment in time and energy have both immediate and long term impact for the TA and for the university in which they work. For the TA, they develop a deeper understanding of their discipline through the work of teaching it and develop “soft” skills in communication, especially the skill of talking about their specialized disciplinary knowledge to non-specialists.

The articles this month call attention to the need to help graduate students prepare for teaching, and the impact of teaching preparation (and the lack thereof) on their professional development, the teaching culture in the university, and career prospects in academia and beyond.

Preparing Your TA for the Job

This Faculty Focus article provides an overview of what faculty need to help graduate students prepare for as new Teaching Assistants, framed within the different roles and responsibilities a graduate student has. Particularly in cases where TA training is unavailable (or the graduate student in question was unable to attend), this article gives a helpful outline about what faculty members must do to support successful TA work in their graduate students. It provides a useful snapshot of the sorts of expertise that skilled teachers have that can become invisible (and thus hard to teach) and is noticed only when absent.
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We Must Prepare Ph.D. Students for the Complicated Art of Teaching

This Chronicle of Higher Education article considers the causes and impact of inadequate preparation for teaching from the perspective of the quality of education provided at universities. For the author, the consequence of graduate students not being prepared to teach will be (future) faculty who are unprepared to teach, and thus unprepared to meet the teaching mission of the university. The increasingly challenging classroom teaching environment exacerbates this problem of unpreparedness for teaching; from dealing with wider student distractions to changing attitudes toward education (among students) and other issues still, more skill and agility are needed to navigate them successfully. Graduate student courses centered around pedagogy are one of several strategies forwarded to help address this challenge.
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The Trade-Off Between Graduate Student Research and Teaching: A Myth?

A common concern with graduate students taking time for teaching professional development is that their research, or their preparedness to conduct research might suffer. The concern frames graduate students as having to negotiate a trade-off between a focus on research and a focus on teaching. This paper, published in PLOS ONE, empirically investigates this claim within the STEM context, and finds that, far from seeing a fall in research preparedness among graduate students who spend time on developing their teaching, there is actually a slight increase, which frames development in teaching and research not as competing ends, but as synergized ones.
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What I Learned As a Teaching Assistant

This short Queen’s University article details some key takeaways from a teaching assistant working in a first year engineering course. His insights are valuable on their own, as he highlights the benefit that teaching has for his content mastery and a greater appreciation of the nuanced skill of asking good questions. Also, this is an excellent exemplar of a reflection article, which is good practice for any Teaching Assistant (or instructor in general) to consolidate, understand, and retain what they have learned from their experience. Encouraging TAs to do something like this following their own TAships can help them gain additional teaching skill and insight from the experience of TAing itself.
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Enjoyed reading about Teaching Assistantship as Teaching Preparation? Learn about other topics we covered in the May 2019 edition by reading the complete Edubytes newsletter.

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