Teaching is an important skill to develop when you are still a PhD student, as many academic job opportunities requires some degree of teaching experience.
But, how can one get teaching experience when opportunities are scarce? Unfortunately, I don’t have a definitive answer. I was lucky to get lots of teaching experience as a PhD student. What I can offer some advice for PhD students regarding teaching and being a teaching assistant (or Tutor in Australian academia).
The following advice is drawn from a handout I developed to pass out to PhD students attending my lecture on building a teaching portfolio that I gave at the University of Washington during my time as a Lecturer there between 2007 and 2014. It was part of the necessary training that TAs had to undergo before starting:
- TAing (Tutoring) and Teaching are Different but the Same: With TAing (or tutoring), you are following a curriculum set by the instructor; with teaching, you are following your own This doesn’t mean, as a TA, you’re required to suppress your individuality. It just means that you need to teach the material the instructor deems important. This is actually a good thing: I’ve found that the best TAs are creative (within an established set of boundaries). Hey, and if you can perfect that skill, you will be a very attractive hire both within academia and beyond it! With both, you are one of the key elements of the learning experience for the students in your class. When teaching or TAing, I believe it’s equally important to take pride in your performance (e.g., by being familiar with the material, preparing ahead of time, acting professionally, etc.) and to develop a sincere interest in whether the students learn (e.g., by listening sometimes instead of talking all the time, making yourself available, etc). Of course, this is a balancing act since teaching is only one part of your academic career, and your academic career is only one part of your life.
- TAing (Tutoring) is Good, but Teaching is Better: At the bare minimum, you’ll have to TA at least once to get through the PhD program (in most programs, at least). Chances are you’ll do it more than If you get a chance to teach a class—meaning act as the actual instructor of a class—take it! Some of the benefits include: (a) a taste of greater responsibility (let’s face it, as a TA, we have a lot of responsibility, but the ultimate responsibility—if something goes wrong, for instance—is in the hands of the instructor); (b) a chance to infuse the lesson plan with a larger dose of your personality and interests; (c) having a complete class ready to go when you’re called upon to do it professionally—which potentially frees a lot of time to focus on other important things (e.g., it could mean you’ll have more time to write and less time preparing for class when you get an academic job); and, (d) it looks great on your CV. I didn’t teach as a grad student (only TA’d). I thought it better to push toward a completed dissertation without distraction. Painfully unrealistic and wrong at worst. Short sighted at best.
- Teaching = Learning: I once ran into a student in the library, and was dismayed by what I heard: “Dr Kushnick, what are you doing in the library? I didn’t know teachers use the library. What a bummer that you still have to read.” Teaching (or TAing) provides a great opportunity to learn, and I suggest you learn as much as you can. Use your preparation time as a chance to learn something new. Read about how to be an effective teacher. Be careful though. Some of what is out there is specific to teaching at a specific school and since every school has a different teaching (and TAing) culture and social structure, some of it won’t be all that valuable. The useful stuff, in my opinion, is the stuff that’s simultaneously both general and specific—general enough to apply to teaching anywhere, but specific in that it provides advice about specific things you might do to improve your effectiveness (see the list from Webb’s article in the sidebar is a good example). The stuff that applies to teaching at a particular institution is useful too (if you’re teaching at that institution).
- Manage Your Portfolio: I’ve applied for more academic jobs than I’m willing to admit, and I count myself as lucky to have had this Lectureship for the past few I believe I’m qualified to make generalizations about what you’ll find in the job ads; less qualified to make statements about how to get the jobs being advertised. More than half of the available jobs I’ve seen ask for a detailed statement of your teaching interests and experience, and documentation of your “commitment to teaching excellence.” Usually, you’re asked to include this information as part of the application letter. Sometimes, you’re asked to send a separate teaching statement or mini‐portfolio. Other times, especially when applying to large research institutions, you’re asked for less information about your teaching. Whether the job you’ll be applying for asks for a lot or a little information, you’re better off if you’ve been keeping a portfolio of teaching materials that you can pull from to build your application. This might include: syllabi from courses you’ve taught or TA’d; evaluations from students or instructors; video or audio recordings of you in the classroom; notes regarding your teaching philosophy, if not a draft of an actual statement; etc, etc…
Twelve Easy Steps to Becoming an Effective Teaching Assistant
By Derek Webb from (2005) Political Science and Politics, v.38, pp. 757‐761.
Derek Webb was a PhD Candidate at when he published this. He was the winner of the 2003 Outstanding Graduate Student Teaching Assistant at Notre Dame University. Here are his steps to being a great Teaching Assistant for those who find the opportunity:
- Be yourself.
- Be available.
- Be organized.
- Learn your students’ names ASAP.
- The three goals of discussion section: Nuts and bolts, challenge and excitement, fun and games.
- Provide a handout or or agenda.
- Provide a mini‐lecture.
- Provide an opportunity for students to ask questions.
- Work to stimulate discussion.