Reflections on Being a Teaching Assistant

I can’t remember exactly when I made the decision to become a teaching assistant—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 appreciate every moment I have gotten to spend as a teaching assistant, because I have taken away more from the experience than I would have gotten from simply being told how to teach.

At the beginning of my second semester as a teaching assistant, I was grading reading quizzes on d2l when I noticed something funny. Two of the quizzes, one by a male student and one by a female student, were submitted at exactly the same times with near exactly the same answers. It was an obvious case of cheating. I looked over each question on both quizzes multiple times, and then zeroed out the quizzes entirely; I left feedback for both students in question explaining that they had received zeroes because their answers were the same; even though it was a take home, online exam, the students were still expected to complete it alone. The male student came to me within a day or so to inquire about the zero; he was upset with the grade and wanted to know why it was considered cheating. It occurred to me then that perhaps this was not a case of them working together, but more a case of one of them copying answers of the screen next to them in the computer lab. In the back of my mind, I assumed the male student was the one who had cheated. Unconsciously, I formed a slight prejudice of this student early in the semester.

As the semester went on, he proved me wrong; this student taught me that, for reasons I am uncertain of, I tend to have a bias against male students. The female student stopped showing up to class in the first month of the semester, and the male student, while he wasn’t producing the highest quality work, kept showing up. And best of all, he kept trying. He did every extra credit option that was available to him, and he stepped up his game on both exams and papers. I believe he will pass. This student changed the way that I will view students from here on out; because of him, I made more of an effort this semester to pull for male and female students alike. This situation is also the perfect example of how black and white my thinking is, from people to grades to life in general. To me, things have always been either one way or the other, with no middle ground. As I have grown in my teaching, from my first class to my last, this is just one of many lessons I have learned.

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. Being a teaching assistant has given me so many new skills that I can deploy in a wide variety of classrooms. As a teaching assistant, I have received many opportunities to learn more about teaching and I how I will approach my eventual goal of teaching college composition. Between my two sections as a teaching assistant, I have helped write and grade exams, craft discussion questions for both verbal and journal discussions, attend student conferences, grade proposals and papers, and lead class discussion. My second semester, I also created a paper proposal assignment that I hope I can use in future classrooms at other institutions.

I was very into the idea of being a teaching assistant going in my first semester; my mistake, however, was that I thought it would be easy for me. I came into it with more than two years of teaching drama on my own, I thought it would be nothing to share a classroom, that I would be able to transfer all of the skills I had learned over and automatically be amazing. I was wrong. It was exceedingly difficult for me to have to watch someone that I greatly respected and wanted to learn as much as I could from, stand up in front of the classroom and be amazing—and to know that she would expect me to do the same. I didn’t know how to live up to that, and as a result, my first teaching day during my first semester was a disaster. I planned out an awesome activity that had a lot of potential, but a series of technological failures as class was starting left me feeling uncertain and flustered. The class didn’t respond to me the way I wanted; they had never been people who liked to talk, but it still threw me. I failed to properly tie my activity in to the day at hand, fallacies, because the students weren’t talking and I got nervous. I was not effective that day; I immediately turned to the professor to bail me out. I wanted to never come back after that day. I assumed at the time that the flop was because I hadn’t planned solidly enough. But now I think it’s because I wasn’t confident. The professor told me after class that I needed to “get back on the horse.” A teacher cannot teach without having confidence, or, at the very least, being able to act like they do. I didn’t that day—but I do now.

My second semester as a teaching assistant went a lot better in so many ways. I had many successful activities throughout the semester that I plan to save and reuse in my own classroom. The first was an activity on how to create a thesis statement. I had the students write their thesis on down on the essay we had read for class that day. While they were writing, I put six different thesis statements on the board that were incorrect. When they were done, I had them set the paper aside. We discussed what comprised a good thesis and what would make a weak thesis. When I thought that the class had a good grasp on good versus bad based upon the answers they were giving me, I moved to the next stage of the activity. I broke the class into six groups and assigned each group one of the bad thesis statement that I had written on the board. I asked them to discuss in their group what was wrong with the thesis statement and then rewrite it to be a stronger thesis. I circulated throughout the room during the activity, answering questions and helping the groups to stay on track. When all the groups were done, I had them read their original  assigned thesis, the issues they found with it, and their revised version out loud. My original intention when creating the activity was to then go back to their original thesis statements and have them discuss what made them either good or bad, and then correct them if need be, in their groups. However, there was not enough time left in class to fully complete the activity. We had just enough time for them to identify whether or not their thesis statement were acceptable before it was time for them to leave. I feel that the activity went well as a whole. One major flaw in it was that the sample thesis statements that I came up with confused the students slightly—they were issue based instead of reading response based. If I ever repeat this activity at this level, I will make sure that the two types of thesis statements—the examples I give and the ones the students create—agree. Had I had more time, I would have fully debriefed them regarding what they had learned and how they could re-approach their original thesis statements from the beginning of class. This step is a step of teaching that I have always had trouble with; in teaching drama, I refer to it in my head as reapplication. I did not account for the time I would spend differentiating between good and bad thesis statements, which left me without the required time at the end of class to complete the activity. This was another moment that taught me I need to remember that all students are different, and allow myself to adjust accordingly so that they still get the maximum amount of knowledge out of whatever I am teaching. 

I was able to apply this knowledge on several different days throughout the semester, but the smoothest teaching day I had was the day I taught profiles. I used profile day as a two-fold day. One, to teach the profile genre, and two, to help clarify what I was looking for with the proposal assignment I had created. I started the class by reintroducing the ideas of the rhetorical situation and how they would function within the proposal. I then broke the class into groups (after royally messing up the math and making them count twice), and had them break down the an essay in a backwards proposal fashion. By asking each group to find the thesis, sources (and their function), introduction importance, conclusion importance, intended audience, and rhetorical strategies, I was able to show them the elements of a paper proposal in a less confusing fashion than a mere bullet-point list by explaining how the information they gathered was exactly the brainstorm they would have done to form a paper proposal were they the ones creating the given essay. I feel like the students had a greater understanding of what I was looking for in the proposal. On my next go-round with this assignment, I would definitely place this activity on the same day as my proposal assignment day to give them a larger understanding from the get-go.

The second part of this day, I focused on profiles. First, I went over the things that are included in a biography. Then I transitioned to go over the basic elements of the profile and the different things it could be used to describe, explaining that the profile contains all of the elements of the biography and then some. This seemed to confuse them; they were quite stuck on the idea that biographies are boring. To counteract this, I gave each group a sample profile written by a student, and had them talk about what elements that profile contained and how those elements functioned within that profile. When we were done, with the little time we had left, we compared those elements to show that profiles can use different tools and still tell a story about their subject.

I think this activity went over very well. As a matter of fact, I think that I did quite well on this day. If I had to list the best thing, it would be that I actually got the students to talk, to each other and to me. I was also able to alter the lesson plan I had made on the fly, which is something I have always struggled with in the past. The strange thing is, I noticed that being willing to deviate from my “script,” so to speak, actually made me more comfortable and easy-going in front of the class than I have been on past teaching days. Being able to drift where they wanted to go while still staying in the general area I wanted to be in allowed me to get my point across strongly at the same time as allowing them to fully engage. I also really like using student profiles of all different sorts. Not only did this really drive home to them that there are many different ways to craft a profile, it also drove home the idea that they, too, could write a profile. I think they found the pieces I gave them easier to work with than pieces we’ve assigned in the past because they were written by students; this allowed them to connect to the pieces on a new level.

My biggest negative for the day was time management. I wish I would have had a little more time at the end of class to compare all of the different elements of the different profiles they picked. All in all though, I think that this was my best teaching day of the year. It was the closest I came to feeling as comfortable in the English classroom as I’ve felt in my drama classroom; it was also the first time where I was not thinking so much about what the professor was thinking about what I was doing as about whether the students were with me and understanding the material that I needed them to understand. I was confident in who I was in front of the classroom as well as what I was teaching, and I was not relying on someone else to give me that confidence. I produced it on my own.

I am different now than I was my first semester as a teaching assistant. Or, rather, I’ve been different this semester, and am therefore coming out of this with a different impression. I’m more confident. I’m better at planning out what I’m going to do, and I’m better at being flexible and adjusting on the fly, planning at the last minute. I’m a better teacher because of both of these things. 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 teaching assistant who makes stupid mistakes. I’m the woman who watches, who absorbs, who learns and grows. I have watched my own professors, both those I’ve worked closely with and those I haven’t. I have read the comments they put on my papers, looked at their rubrics, and figured out how they grade. Through that, I have begun to figure out where I lie on the scale of teachers. My grading style is a mixture of many; I tend to be more tough than I need to be, but I am learning how to be less black and white. I am figuring out a line of balance wherein I can be available to my students but also have time for myself. I have decided that I will implement the flipped classroom, wherein the students will read the material before class and then come in and help steer the discussion. I have gotten to work with students and their writing on a daily basis through my various positions. Nothing is more rewarding for me that moment when a student gets the skill that I’m trying to teach and can do it by themselves. As much as I love being able to teach, I also love that moment when the student I am working with doesn’t need me anymore. That moments means I have been successful in the work I set out to do. I feel that the experiences I have had as a teaching assistant will make me a powerful asset to any institution because I already know both how to conduct myself in front of the classroom and how to communicate with students.

Had I gone into graduate school without this practical experience as a teaching assistant, I think there’s a good chance I would have failed; I was not confident enough before this. I was not ready to be a teacher, because I thought I still needed to be taught how to teach. I was wrong. How to teach can’t be taught—it just happens. It’s a skill that comes with confidence, with loving what you do and wanting to share what you know. This is the number one lesson that I learned from being a teaching assistant.

And I’m ready now.


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