What I’ve Learned from Being a Graduate Teaching Assistant Developer

In just a few short weeks, my contract as a Teaching Assistant Developer (TAD) with CTE’s Certificate in University Teaching Program (CUT) will be coming to a close.  It will be a very bittersweet departure for me, as I’ve grown to admire and respect all of my colleagues at CTE, as well as the graduate students that I’ve been working with for the past two years.  As my final blog post, I thought it would be appropriate to reflect on my role at CTE and what I’ve learned from it.

1. Active Learning / Interactivity is still a challenge in many disciplines

My role as a TAD has seen me observe graduate student Teaching Assistants and Sessional Instructors from pretty much every discipline across campus.  In our CUT workshops and teaching observations, we teach the value of ‘thinking outside the lecture box’.  Our CUT participants can easily grasp the theoretical value of involving students more actively in the learning process, but old models and habits are difficult to let go of.  Some of my proudest moments as a TAD have involved seeing graduate students take risks in their teaching by implementing teaching and learning activities not typically associated with their discipline. I’ve seen “Think-Pair-Share” activities used in an Engineering tutorial and a “One Minute Paper” used successfully in a Math class.  I’m always thrilled to see CUT participants try to put theory into practice in their teaching, but I’ve also come to realize that we’ve got a long way to go before the benefits of interactive teaching are embraced in all disciplines.

2. Challenges of Cross-Cultural Teaching

Many of our participants in the CUT program are international students; through my countless conversations with them about their anxieties associated with teaching in a Canadian classroom, I’ve come to realize how much culture matters and can affect one’s teaching.  My own experiences as both a student and an instructor are limited to a Canadian classroom, so I’ve come to take for granted the cultural familiarity I have when teaching.  International TAs and Instructors recognize the cultural divide that can segregate them from their students, and that this extends far beyond the possibility of verbal miscommunication.  These instructors have often told me that they feel like Canadian students want to be entertained rather than informed, and that this contradicts the role of the instructor as they have come to understand it in their home countries.  This is why I was excited to see the development of the International Teaching Assistant (ITA) training during my time at CTE.  The ITA training offers workshops and microteaching sessions that help to demystify the Canadian classroom for international TAs and Instructors and serves a valuable and necessary function at the university.

3. Why it’s a great idea to talk about teaching

The majority of my work as a CUT TAD has involved doing teaching observations for graduate student instructors.  While doing classroom observations, I try to determine a participant’s teaching strengths and areas for improvement.  After observing them teach, I write a report for them and we have a discussion based on my observations. As a result of this, I’ve been lucky enough to have spent a great deal of time dialoguing with fellow graduate students about what constitutes effective teaching at the university level. In our conversations we have talked about the challenges of attracting and maintaining the attention of a generation of students who would rather be chatting on facebook than listening to a lecture; of the pride and satisfaction that can be derived from those “aha” moments that we all cherish; and of the different strategies and techniques we have developed for time management, classroom management, marking, and communicating with students. These conversations have without a doubt been one of my favourite parts of being a TAD. Through these dialogues, I’ve come to appreciate how much we can learn by simply talking about teaching.

The above are just a few of the many things I’ve learned through my experiences as a TAD in the CUT program.  I feel so fortunate for having held this position for the past several terms, and can say without hesitation that it has made me a more effective and reflective educator.  I am quite confident that my involvement in Instructional Development at the post-secondary level will not end here, for at CTE I’ve realized both the need and benefits of doing this work. Although I do not yet know what direction my future career will take me, I hope to continue the work that I’ve begun at CTE: helping instructors not to view teaching as a necessary evil, but inspiring and motivating them to aim for teaching excellence.

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Sally Heath

As the Acting Instructional Developer (2008-2009), Sally Heath oversees all aspects of the Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) program and works with graduate students who are interested in developing their instructional skills and expanding their teaching horizons. In addition to working at CTE, Sally is pursuing a doctoral degree in English.

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