In my last post I complained that grad students don’t generally get taught how to teach in grad school, despite the fact that they are (arguably) there to be trained for a career that requires them to teach. Thanks very much to everyone who commented! As a result of both the comments and getting more information about TA training at my current university, I’ll now write about how there are in fact a lot of opportunities for grad students to learn how to teach. You just have to put a bit of effort into going out and finding them.
After having been a student for a considerable amount of time, grad students have inevitably noticed some things teachers do that are effective, and not so effective. As one commenter noted, you can learn a lot from observing good teachers, and trying to teach the way your best teachers taught you. Although I definitely use techniques that I’ve copied from former and current teachers, I don’t think just being a student has sufficiently prepared me to be an effective teacher. I think some formal training is necessary, or at least a big help.
Based on the comments and my own experience, many universities do provide training for TAs (but some don’t). The second TA training session I attended last week was much more useful than the first one. It’s mandatory for all first-time TAs at the university, which means that it’s geared toward people who are teaching for the first time ever. This ignores the fact that a lot of folks who are doing their first TA contract as a new PhD student will have taught before. This relates to some comments on the last post about how it’s unfortunate when training is mandatory but ends up being a lot of largely wasted time for folks who are already experienced. This session was only 2 hours, and not only covered some teaching strategies but also university rules and regulations (fun fact: it’s ok to date your students at my school – as long as you immediately disclose the relationship to your supervisor and don’t grade their work) so I don’t feel like my time was wasted. But I also definitely don’t feel like the two mandatory sessions by themselves were all the training one needs to be an effective TA.
As it turns out, my university has a lot of additional opportunities to learn how to be a better teacher, for those who want to. The Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation offers a workshop series and two teaching certificate programs that are open (and free) to all graduate students at the university. I will definitely be attending some of these workshops in the future, and possibly working toward getting one of the certificates. I’m confident that my supervisor would support me taking the time to do this, but I’ve heard (and don’t find it surprising) that some faculty don’t regard these programs as a productive use of their grad students’ time. Because any time not spent doing research is time wasted, right?
Even if your university doesn’t offer TA training, workshops, or teaching certificate programs, there are other ways to learn how to teach more effectively. I learned in the comments on the last post about the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL) Network of US universities, which “focuses on preparing STEM grad students and postdocs for careers with a teaching component.” They offer what looks like an excellent MOOC about teaching on Coursera. And of course you can also learn a lot about teaching by reading blogs and literature and interacting with other educators in real life and online!