My experience as a Graduate Teaching Assistant
Depending on which college or even school you are doing your PhD in, you might be doing some graduate teaching assistant (GTA) work. GTA is important especially if you’re considering staying in academia as it gives you valuable experience of teaching in higher education. It can also help you understand if it’s something that you enjoy or is suitable for you. I am doing mine in the Adam Smith Business School, where I am assisting with tutorials. Generally, tutorials are one or two hours of group discussions on specific topics with groups of 12-18 students. I have done my undergraduate degree at Glasgow so when I started my GTA work I relied a lot on my experience as a student to decide on what I did and didn’t want to do in my tutorials.
Of course, before I started my GTA work at the beginning of the semester I had a few concerns and worries!
I was really scared of finding myself in a room with twelve students in a very awkward silence. What if I couldn’t get people to participate? What if they hated me? I wondered as well if my tutors ever had the same thoughts, and yes, they probably did as it’s a very common thing to worry about. I was also worried about balancing the formal versus informal atmosphere. I wanted to be taken seriously as a tutor but I also didn’t want to impose a rigid atmosphere and I wanted the students to feel relaxed and happy to participate. Ultimately, I wanted to be a tutor that seemed knowledgeable but approachable which seems like a difficult thing to balance.
I quickly realised that during tutorials your own personality is going to shape how they take place. I was a bit worried about this as I didn’t want to come across as too casual. I sometimes rely on humor to alleviate some of the uncomfortable silences while waiting for people to participate. I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing but it does work for me.
I also found that each group is very different; some are very active and discussions are very interesting while for other groups you have to guide the discussion more heavily. At first I thought it was because I was doing something wrong but I realised that the students themselves set this dynamic. I also found that although you might have a structure from the lecturer on how to run the tutorial, it might not always fit the group you’re working with. It helps to be flexible and have different approaches for different group dynamics in mind.
One thing that I found quite difficult to go around is the fact that students sometimes think you have more information than you actually have. Unless you’re running the course it’s sometimes difficult to know all the answers that might come up, especially those related to assignments and exams. However, as you and the course coordinators or lecturers are clustered in the category of course instructors, the students don’t always make the distinction between you and the course coordinator. From the student’s perspective this means that when your tutor can’t give you an answer to a question, it might make them seem unqualified. That’s why it is really important to prepare with all the information in advance and be honest when you don’t know the answer but try and help them find out.
Another part of being a GTA is working with different academics in your department. You will find that different academics have different teaching styles you might not fit with. For example, some lecturers like to have the tutorial material readily available for the students, while others expect them to find the material themselves. I usually try to stick to a consistent approach to all of my tutorials because that’s what I feel most comfortable with, in terms of facilitating the discussion. This sometimes means printing the materials and bringing them to class.
To sum up my thoughts on being a GTA for the first time, I would say I had to improvise and be flexible a lot more than I expected but being able to do that actually made me feel more confident in my abilities. Although I was quite worried before starting my GTA experience, I realised that I really enjoyed it!
Have you done any teaching and demonstrating as part of your PGR degree? How did you find it and where you worried about any of the things discussed in this article? Please let us know in the comments! And if you're just starting your GTA life now and are worried about it, try and not stress out to much. The university has workshops and events that can help you develop your teaching. You can also ask more experienced demonstrators or the lecturers for help, and remember that you are not expected to know absolutely everything. It's fine to admit you don't know the answer to a question, but try to help the students work it out for themselves or ask someone else and then help them.