As a first-time teaching assistant, Jean Florman left every session of her physical anthropology class in despair.
“The class covered everything from molecular genetics to hominid evolution,” recalls Florman, director of the University of Iowa’s Center for Teaching. “I was an archaeologist, and I had never had any molecular anything. I was failing the needs of the students. I probably confused them even more than if they had been left to their own devices.”
The Center for Teaching offers a TA Orientation before the fall semester begins. At the orientation, new teaching assistants gain teaching strategies, network with fellow TAs, and learn how the UI’s Center for Teaching can help them develop their teaching skills.
The Center for Teaching, which reports to the Office of the Provost, has designed this day-long orientation to be informative, participatory, and fun for the graduate students.
The orientation provides a relaxed setting where TAs meet not only their departmental peers, but also new TAs in other disciplines. By modeling in-class teaching strategies, the orientation facilitators enable participants to experience active learning situations from a student’s point of view.
“Much like the students they teach, graduate students learn best when they are relaxed and engaged in the learning process,” says Florman. “We hope this orientation inspires them to think about how they will design their own discussion sections and courses to be more than Q&A review sessions.”
Raquel Baker agrees. Baker is a TA in rhetoric and has served as a panelist for the UI’s TA Orientation.
“Be patient with yourself,” she says. “You’re not going to get it right the first time. You will not always be on top of your game, so forgive yourself.”
James Wetzel, a TA in physics, encouraged his fellow graduate students to rely on one another to achieve teaching success.
“Be collaborative, not competitive. You’re so much more effective if you work together instead of against each other,” Wetzel said.
The orientation introduces new graduate students to many campus resources that support excellence in teaching and student learning, including the Graduate College, the Center for Teaching/Office of the Provost, ITS-Instructional Services, the UI Libraries, the Office of Graduate Teaching Excellence, the Office of Student Life, and campus advising centers.
“I hope the new TAs who participate in a Center for Teaching orientation—either the day-long group event or individual departmental orientations—feel more confident because they have a few arrows in their teaching quivers,” Florman says. “I hope they know that teaching is valued at Iowa, and realize there are people who will support and encourage them in their teaching efforts.”
“Teaching assistants play a vital role in the lives of Iowa undergraduates, serving not only as teachers and mentors but also as role models,” Florman adds. “In many situations, they are on the ‘front lines’ of teaching, especially in large lecture courses where students may feel more at ease in their small-group discussion sections where they can interact with TAs.
“It’s important to provide new TAs with some fundamental teaching tools as well as welcome them to campus and to this new phase of their professional development.”