An undergraduate education does not prepare you for the rigours of graduate school. In undergrad, we learn through rote memorization of concepts and materials. We regularly (if not always) accept things presented to us as true. We study frantically the night before exams, then nap, and forget. An undergraduate degree, especially at large universities, is an exercise in passively absorbing the largest quantity of information with the least energetic investment. But then we enter the world of graduate studies, and we are expected to question, to create, and to analyse – higher order cognitive skills that are not strongly emphasised in a typical undergraduate upbringing. Not only are we expected to think differently, but to get out of our seats and perform. In this respect, graduate school is the opposite of undergrad, being heavily based on learning by trial and error, rather than by sitting through lectures. This transition from passively learning theoretical principles to experimentally applying them is akin to the transition from student to teacher. Most programs require graduate students to hold at least one teaching assistantship during their degree. And most graduates will choose to do this early on, so that they can focus on uninterrupted research later. That means that within the span of a few short months, we are expected to move from the mentality of being a student to being a teacher.
At most universities, there is no requirement to undertake formal training prior to accepting a teaching assistantship. If you are so inclined, you are free to get up infront of your first class with little more than a one or two hour briefing about the course and some recycled notes. It is a sad truth that teaching the next generation of academics has become the nasty thorn in the side of graduate students and professors alike – an obligate responsibility that detracts from time otherwise spent on research. But for me, teaching has been one of the most rewarding and enriching activities of my degree. Many year one and two undergraduates haven’t yet cemented their path in life. Being able to inspire them and influence their trajectory is a tremendously powerful experience that will linger in your memory for ages. Additionally, most teaching assistants form the most intimate link between the students and the course. Professors may appear intimidating and busy to students. But TAs are typically closer in age and often have opportunity to work more closely with students. Indeed, TAs may be the only figure in a course that a student will talk to one-on-one. So in my opinion, teaching is so much more than a forced responsibility or a way to cobble together some extra cash. It is an honour. One that should not be taken lightly.
Most people have a basic understanding of what good teaching entails. They may remember an inspiring teacher they once had and attempt to emulate their style. They may remember a strategy that helped them remember something they had once learnt, and use the same in their classes. But from my time as a Tomlinson fellow observing graduate students, it is evident to me that for most of us, there remains a disconnect between good teaching and what we are practicing. Most believe that a good teacher is one who can explain things really well. But a good teacher is so much more than that! Good teachers lead students to learning, whatever it may take. Sometimes, that might mean coaxing students to their own conclusions – no overt explanations necessary.
This disconnect may stem from the fact that many of us do not consider how to teach, just what we are teaching. We know that we have a set of material to get through, and we may plan how best to present it within the constraints of both time and the course. We may not consider, however, that we have a teaching style. And that this style can evolve and be refined, and that personal reflection about what kind of teacher we are and what kind of teacher we want to be will actually make us better. Good teachers approach a class with both a passion and a humility that must be earned through a personal interrogation of oneself.
Thankfully, we are at an institution that recognizes that training its TAs to teach is a worthwhile investment. At McGill, first-time TAs can be financially compensated for up to three hours of teaching training, if they take the “Teaching Assistant Training” sessions offered by Teaching and Learning Services. There are also unpaid ways to improve you teaching abilities. SKILLSETS holds a “Learning to Teach” day, a full-day workshop for students considering a teaching career. Further, the Tomlinson Project for University Level Science Education (T-PULSE) offers science students a free two-day workshop specifically geared towards teaching graduate students how to teach. And, if you would like to take it one step further, there is also a course offered by the Faculty of Education, open to all graduate students, that is designed to have you plan and execute your own course. The latter is without parallel, if you are not a student in education but wish to have a pleasantly padded portfolio for a teaching career later in life.
In conclusion, my experience has taught me that there are at least three things that we can do as graduate students when preparing to teach for the first time:
1. Take a teaching workshop or course. You will undoubtedly learn at least a few tricks and tips, you might get paid, and it looks great on your CV.
2. Select to TA a course that you not only have experience with, but have a genuine interest in. Your students will benefit greatly from your personal experience and enthusiasm.
3. Take some time to develop a teaching philosophy. It doesn’t have to be lengthy, and you don’t have to show it to anyone. At first, it may just function as a medium through which you consciously think about how you intend to teach, and why you’re doing it that way.