Departmental support makes all the difference for new teachers

I identified with a lot of what Sarah Deel discussed in her post. I will be a first time teacher next semester, so I am asking and attempting to answer many of the same questions she did; however, unlike Sarah, I have the full support and mentorship of my department during this process. I am also coming from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, so the emphasis on teaching is slightly greater than in other colleges. Like Sarah, though, I came from a  smaller liberal arts school where teaching was the forefront for most faculty, so the adjustment from that school to Tech has been odd for me. I am grateful for my “academic upbringing” in the liberal arts, as teaching has always been a bigger passion than research for me and because of the school I came from, I am confident in sharing that with faculty in my department.

I have described it before, but after the readings for this week, I am incredibly grateful for my department’s apprenticeship program for GTAs. This semester, I am attending all the classes of, do the grading for and will give two lectures in a section of the course I will teach next semester. I meet with my apprenticeship supervisor each week to process things that happened in the class (things my supervisor felt worked and areas where they felt they could improve)  and to discuss any of my upcoming responsibilities. As I prepare my first guest lecture (in two weeks!) my supervisor shared with me resources they use for content as well as more general teaching resources that I will use in my presentation. I will get feedback from my thesis advisor, my apprenticeship supervisor and another graduate student in my department from one or both of my guest lectures, that can not only go into a teaching portfolio, but will also be helpful in developing my course for the spring.

I had previously been a TA for a professor who is nearing retirement and while they were absolutely great to me, they were less understanding or sympathetic to undergraduate students and their struggles. My apprenticeship mentor’s teaching philosophy is all about increasing and creating opportunities for learning whenever they can. By doing grading for these different professors and their individual standards for accepting student work, I’ve found where my boundaries will be with students. As a student teacher, especially, and maybe during my first few years as a full-on faculty member, I will have more strict guidelines than my mentorship supervisor and will be more flexible than my previous TA supervisor. As I get further into my career and have more time devoted to teaching rather than other bureaucratic responsibilities, these policies may change over time.

Without this apprenticeship program and other opportunities afforded to me by my department, I imagine that I would be much less sure of myself as a future teacher and would spend a significant amount of time agonizing over the questions Sarah asked herself. After reading about her experiences, my appreciation for my department and the faculty’s willingness to share their experiences and resources in teaching has increased ten-fold and I know I have an invaluable network of support.

Effective Learning

A number of posts this week have discussed various themes that have emerged since beginning this class, its readings and discussions. For me, each week, I consider balance to be the theme applied in different contexts.

I think the idea of engaged and mindful learning is noble, but like this post I also acknowledge that we can’t always do that. I think we, as educators, need to spend meaningful time examining our course content and finding the places where we can effectively engage technology, mindful learning and other more innovative methods of education, to balance out the places where we might have to give a basic lecture.

This post mentioned GTAs who are thrown into teaching without adequate preparation, and I agree that’s a huge problem and likely contributes to the less effective (mindless) learning that we see in some areas more than others. My department has a really great teaching apprenticeship program, wherein the semester before GTAs become instructors of record, they shadow and act as TAs for the course they will eventually teach. Our introductory course uses an online textbook with integrated quizzes, as well as other helpful resources, such as flash cards, glossaries and interactive material, that students are required to read. When preparing my first guest lecture, my apprenticeship supervisor told me that students, on average, only retain 10% of course material in a lecture that goes broad but not deep. He advised me to go over the material from the book, find the concepts that would be most challenging to students and focus my lecture on 20-30% of the textbook material, then work on ways to engage students so they might take away 90% of the content from my lecture. I still won’t be covering everything, but I’ll hopefully engage their learning, build on their previous readings and help them to come away with more than if I had just done a lecture that covered everything in the textbook over again.