Blog Post

Five Things I Learned By Being A Teacher's Assistant

This past year, the John and Jan Cauffman Fellowship allowed me to work with a faculty member at Whittier College to design a syllabus and help implement it in the classroom. The course was entitled Digital Labor: Race, Gender and Technology in Literature and Film. This was the first time the course was taught at Whittier College, and was converted from a semester long course to a three week January Term course. Overall, the course was successful and challenged everyone involved. These are the five takeaways I got from that experience.

1. Preparation is key. There is never too much forethought.

In preparing to lead class sessions independently, no matter how much time I spent with the readings, reviewing connections I thought would be valuable, nothing fully prepared me to take on the class and be ready for where the students would take the class. At a certain point, I came to recognize I could never prepare too much, and my level of preparation would be obvious to the students.

2. Effectively moderating and facilitating discussions is a skill and takes practice. 

Giving students the freedom to steer a discussion a certain way was a fundamental piece of our class, but also most of Whittier College. I firmly believe we are co-creators in our educational experiences. Encouraging students to point out pieces of readings or make connections that we hadn't considered, was one of the most valuable portions of the course. While those conversations were productive, many were not. Reigning it in without shutting people down was one of the skills I hope to continue to practice after this class.

 

 

3. There are different types of contributions. Identifying and adhering to your role in the classroom is a challenge. 

As a student, your role is to participate when you feel comfortable and every now and then challenge yourself. You have a lot of choice and autonomy as a student to identify your personality and who you will be in the classroom. As a Professor, you're role in directing the class is very clear. As a T.A., it was often challenging to determine when appropriate opportunities to participate where. The key was finding opportunities to move the discussion along or ask a question that was significantly simpler and build up to more complex concepts.

4. Predicting what people don't know is almost impossible- unless you've been teaching for a while and/or are a mastermind.

As a student, I often find myself assuming a Professor knows the most complex part of a lesson. As a T.A., I quickly learned how rare this is the case. When the discussion went silent because a question was worded poorly or the connections we were making were too vague, we sat in silence. It wasn't until I was out of the classroom that my peers would then approach me and casually talk about what they didn't understand and the subsequent awkwardness that they experienced. I realized how individual interpreting material can be. Ultimately this was a lesson in creating a culture of transparency and the importance of speaking up in class, rather then leaving a Professor or T.A. blindly grasping at straws.

5. Remembering you're human and learning everyday is the key to a collaborative relationship.

Throughout this course, there were days I was frustrated with myself. In replaying class, I thought about how I could've reacted differently or made a stronger connection. I dwelled on a few moments where I found myself just as stuck as everyone else. As the course progressed I realized two things. One, like most situations you replay in your head, I was one of the few (or only one) who still remembered that situation. Two, I realized the value in not understanding, expressing confusion and learning alongside students.

Reflecting on my experience, these were the most challenging aspects of the course. This opportunity challenged me to grow and take on many experiences I had never had. The students I worked with were diverse and inspired growth I hadn't imagined. My desire to teach has been cemented because of this. I also learned, just how long it will take me to master many of these skills. I look forward to similar experiences as I move forward in my academic career.

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