One of my advisors once told me that she lives for the moment where her students no longer need her and can be independent. I love that moment. I wish it could occur every day; I also wish that I could not be sad when it doesn’t. I’ve heard that feeling, that sadness, does go away for some. But I don’t want it to, not really. When it does, I’ll know it’s time to stop teaching.
The first real class I ever taught, aside from church related things, was a beginning theater class for five to eight year olds. My aid for the class could probably testify to the fact that I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. I had observed the class under another teacher, so I had a basic idea regarding how things should go. But I had come in expecting a curriculum filled with the right answers and what to do and arrived to find nothing but a roster and a theme: Robin Hood for tiny humans. It was my first experience flying by the seat of my pants. I like to think it worked out well; I then taught for the company for the next three years. But that first class has always been my favorite. I felt like a teacher when I was in front of their semicircle, all of them sitting cross-legged and staring up at me, waiting for me to tell them what to do. However, I will never forget the moment when they walked onstage for the end of session performance and were able to say their lines and do the choreography without me. They were independently acting, wearing their construction paper Robin Hood hats (that kept falling off on the stage). Maybe they weren’t perfect, but they were pretty darn great. They displayed the things they learned in class, and I had had a part in that, however small. To me, that was what being a teacher was really about.
I can’t remember exactly when I made the decision to become a TA—it just sort of happened. I don’t think there are many of them in undergrad. Or at least not many who ARE undergrads. I believe this makes me a unique breed.
I received an email from professor towards the middle of my second year of undergrad. She was looking for a dedicated student to work as a supplemental instructor. It wasn’t really teaching, per say. Supplemental instruction more revolves around reviewing material with the students and teaching them how to learn independently. But I still had a blast with it. It was a completely different feeling than being in front of the kids and teaching drama. I looked forward to doing it in future semesters. Then it came:
We don’t have enough Psych 101 instructors that want SI next semester, so we won’t be able to use you.
I was told that if I could find a professor willing to work with me, I could possibly do SI for that professor instead. So I put out a Facebook status and tagged every professor I was friends with. I got a bite:
I’m very interested. Let’s chat.
I was very interested in working with this professor, N, but it turned out her course didn’t have a high enough failure rate to require a supplemental instructor. It wasn’t in the budget. I still desperately wanted the opportunity to learn from her.
Behold. The idea to TA was born.
I often get asked what I do as a TA. It’s a lot; it’s too much to list. And my duties have evolved. I attend class, I talk. I grade, I lead. I comment, I assist. I get to draw on the board and occasionally play Vanna. It just seems to work.
Last semester, I went into the first day as a TA quite overwhelmed; I wasn’t sure how it would be to “share” a classroom, so to speak. I wasn’t sure where my place was, how I fit, what I was supposed to do. I didn’t know when to speak up, how to make things work as a person in front of the classroom but not in front of it at the same time. In a classroom of 18 year old and up people as opposed to tiny humans.
I don’t think I spoke the first day. I possibly didn’t speak the second either. I panicked when I realized there were 28 students and I couldn’t remember their names. 28 seemed like so many more than 16, the largest size theater class I’d ever taught. And the first time I taught as a TA, I did a lot of things wrong. I had an activity planned that involved my laptop, but I had never used my laptop with the projector before. I didn’t realize everything would automatically show when I plugged it in; I failed to take into account the fact that I had student grades up on my screen, as well as failed to remember that my wallpaper was a picture of my dead son. When the class didn’t respond to me, I forgot that they weren’t really talkers to begin with and began to panic and rush through things. I expected N to bail me out rather than try to bail myself out; I immediately looked to her. And while she did save me, she at the same time made me keep going. When no one would really converse with me regarding the video clip I had shown, I started calling on random people. I didn’t give them enough time to think. I was scared to wait them out. And then I didn’t fully connect my segment to the main theme for the day—fallacies.
I cried driving away from campus that day, because I couldn’t focus on the good things that had happened—that the students liked the video clip, that they did eventually engage, that they gave me the correct answers. I could only focus on the fact that things didn’t go precisely the way I’d planned, and the fact that I would never be a teacher.
Even at the end of the semester, when I had a lot of TA wins under my belt, I thought back to that first day, that day I screwed up. But the focus started to change when I realized that rather than continually calling myself a failure, I wanted to be better. I wanted to grow.
I’m different now than I was that first semester. More confident. I’m better at planning out what I’m going to do, and I’m a better TA for it. I talk to the class, and they talk to me. This semester, I’ve even (somewhat) created my own assignment for the first time, a composition design proposal that I will assign in class this week. Things seem to be going better. I’m not sure if it’s that the class is more talkative and better as a whole, or that I’ve learned.
I like to think I’ve learned.
I had a student once named A. A was very quite and shy. I had a hard time getting her to engage with the other kids. She didn’t want to sing solos or talk in front of people, but she loved me. Every week she would bring me a small gift, from a construction paper drawing of “her teacher” to a valentine, to a photo of her new puppy. It was wrong to have favorites, but she was definitely one of mine. Not because of the gifts, but because I understood her. I was shy too.
“Do you ever get afraid in front of people?” she asked me one day after class.
“A,” I replied, “I think everybody does. It’s okay to be shy, but performing can be different. An escape from being scared. You can be whoever you want to be.”
“Okay,” she replied, and then skipped off to meet her older brother.
She disappeared from classes for a while after that session, but when she turned eight she auditioned for and was accepted to her first show. When she came onstage as one of the orphans in “Annie,” I cried. It was the moment I realized I was meant to be a teacher.
I have never been so grateful for the chance to work with someone as I am to work with N. Not because I work with her now so many days a week and get to do all the things. Not because of the load she carries and the way she’s taught me to balance, though her load is enormous. And not just because she’s awesome, though she definitely is. It’s because of the little things. The fact that she spends an hour on grading a paper other people might dismiss for being poor work, just so she can maybe help the student become just a tiny bit better. The fact that she spends her entire break preparing her classes and looking back on activities to enhance them and make them better each semester using suggestions from students. The fact that she opens her office and her email and her time to help her students and make them not just better students, but better people. She has done that for me, without a question. That N has taken the time to work with me has made me a better teacher as well as a better person. Not many people get this chance, but I did. And I’m doing well at it. I more than make it work. I’m becoming more confident. Growing. Learning.
During student conferences, which she let me sit on, I watched N handle an especially promising student who was not doing so well—a student that I might have written off were the decision left to me. Despite the problems this student has had, N was still willing to work with her. She was able to see past that and see the student underneath, and I could tell that she wanted to break through. I believe that she can, whether it be to that student or to a different one. Even when she doesn’t know the right answer, she figures it out.
I want to be that teacher someday.
The thing about teaching is that there really isn’t any one right way to do it. I know that now. All of my life, I’ve looked to others to tell me what to do and I live for the right answers. I need them. My teaching style has evolved into a mix of the people around me; I’m not the drama teacher on her first day anymore, and I’m not the TA who makes stupid mistakes. I’m the woman who watches, who absorbs, who learns and grows. I watch all of my professors and the way they handle their classrooms; I read the comments that they put on my papers and I look at their rubrics, and I figure out how they grade. Through that, I have begun to figure out where I lie. My grading style is between two professors, N and D. I’m less black and white than I used to be, but I still have a hard time calculating grades without actual numbers in front of me. I enjoy the way T makes herself available to help students in whatever way she can. I love the way they all flip the classroom, the way they make me think, and the way they have taught me to have my own ideas and stand on them. I have learned so much from all of my professors, about teaching and about simply being. And I am grateful for every last opportunity.
I started writing this thinking that my teaching was a little piece of all of them. But I’m beginning to realize that it’s a lot of me too. And that that’s the right answer.