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So You Got a Teaching Assistantship?

Ahhh... Back-to-School season, full of trainings and orientations. So grab your pumpkin spice latte and open a new pack of G2s. There may even be free campus-catered pizza.

I pinpointed my three guiding principles for teaching and then spent far too long searching for toucan images to accent my "Classroom Management" powerpoint slides for the new graduate student orientation.

First, a bit of context:

Teaching Assistantship (TA): Many STEM graduate students get paid to teach while completing their graduate degree.

The only problem is that not many graduate students are hired based on their teaching qualifications (or desires), few programs extensively train graduate students in teaching, and often research advisors and sometimes even the graduate students themselves do not see the value in investing in teaching, as it merely serves as a job to pay for research labor.

Okay scientists, here are some data. Grad students with teaching experience conduct better science research compared to teaching-deprived grad students, with significantly improved research design and testable hypotheses.

Disclaimer: I took a screenshot of this figure, but I did not obtain formal permission to repost this figure in this context, so for legal purposes, this is where I say that all ideas and opinions in this blog post are my own. See link to article for more details about this study.

So without further ado, here is the best advice I have learned about how to teach:

1. Fake it 'til you make it.

Smile. You get to be a passionate biologist sharing what you know with your students. Convince yourself that this is true, and your students will be equally "decieved" and may even share your passion.

You do not have to be an expert. In fact, asking questions like, "I don't know, what do you think?" instead of being a human-answer-key can be a far more effective teaching technique. At the very least, you get the opportunity to show your student how to find that information. Learning how to learn can be even more valuable than scribing facts.

The overall message here: battle that feeling known as "imposter syndrome" by reminding yourself that you belong in the front of the class, holding the powerpoint clicker.

2. Be a leader before a friend.

Set clear expectations. It is your job to create a safe community for students to be able to learn. Structure allows students to know what is and is not okay. Sarcasm has no place in establishing classroom boundaries. Although laying out expectations can feel self-explanatory or redundant, doing so allows everyone to be on the same page of the same book, even if you have read it before.

Expectations enable students to rise up to what they can be capable of, including complicated procedures and difficult assignments--as long as they know what to expect.

Build a rapport. Genuinely get to know and connect with your students. Ask them questions. Laugh a little.

3. Everyone comes from a good heart.

Assume the best. Give your students the benefit of the doubt. Most students want to do well, but some have a harder time getting what they want/need out of a classroom setting without more guidance. Setting clear expectations should help, but sometimes challenges arise.

When a student is challenging you by disrupting class or arguing about policies, try to understand where they are coming from and empathize with what they may be feeling. Caution: sarcasm has a deteriorating effect on empathy and can poison your genuine support. Gently hold your ground on your class policy. That student, as well as all of the surrounding ones overhearing your interaction, will respect you more for upholding the expectations you previously promised on day one or on a syllabus. For every difficult conversation, there is surely an empowering Love and Logic phrase that can come to your rescue.

Most importantly, have fun. Your students are full of new perspectives, some of which may surprise you.

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