Teaching assistants help get the work done on campuses across the country, but who helps the TAs? In FSU's math department, Dr. Pene Kirby is one of those people. As Coordinator of Graduate Teaching Assistants, Dr. Kirby leads the TA Training Program, working closely with incoming students through a series of courses to provide support as students seek to maintain their own studies alongside their newfound instructional role. Dr. Kirby understands that challenge, and explained: "They have a fairly hard job. They have to explain mathematics in very low language. They need to be flip-flopping in their mind, as a student and as a TA. Graduate students are trying to manage, trying to be everything and balance it all out." That's where she comes in.
The TA Training Program, designed around three courses and rife with faculty and peer mentorship, offers support to students who are, indeed, trying to do it all. Whether or not they've taught before, this training provides the tools and encouragement necessary for successful instruction. Dr. Kirby's goal through the program, she reflected, is "to feel like they've grown from the time they walk in the door as a first semester TA to when they leave. I want them to have grown it that time." As a teacher of teaching, she gets to see firsthand, across many levels, just how that growth comes about.
Before classes begin, incoming TAs take a lab class to learn the ropes of proctoring exams. They start off with lab classes. While they're doing lab classes they also work with a lecturer. For the first year, they observe an experienced lecturer. In their first two semesters, they participate in the solo class and the presentation workshop, both of which prepare them for more independent instruction down the road. Dr. Kirby is pleased that she's able to offer such a comprehensive guide to teaching: "We have a very robust training for TAs. They're never just thrown into a class and told, 'Just go do it.' They get a lot of feedback, a lot of help. I've had a number of TAs progress from no experience at all to being able to take on anything." That progress comes in the form of the solo class and presentation workshop.
The solo class serves as a conduit for university and departmental policy, procedure, and course materials, building a foundation for solo teaching opportunites, such as teaching pre-calculus. While a student may lead his or her own class, Kirby sees these courses as more of a guided solo, since "everybody's teaching the same class, taking the same tests. They have all the departmental materials. They are following some real structure; they get oversight. Somebody visits their class; they turn in gradebooks."
The presentation workshop is the next step. It's a space where a small group of students, led by Dr. Kirby, perform their presentations while being recorded and then have the chance to review, analyze, and learn from the experience. Their classmates have a chance to offer constructive criticism, there's ample time in the six-week course for students to present multiple times, building their confidence in a teaching and learning environment. This semester, for example, finds Dr. Kirby with 20 students, and the workshops are broken into four workshops with five students each. Without a doubt, students benefit from this individual attention.
As students move through their training, they're also given the opportunity to be involved in the classroom in a variety of ways. Other than the lab classes and guided solos, students can also lead recitations, where they work closely with faculty, learning the tricks of the trade, while also dipping their toes in the water.
"The most rewarding moment is when a student whos's been struggling starts to do better, starts to get it, and they get excited."Pene Kirby
Kirby explained, "The TA and the instructor are going to work together. I'm doing calculus, and I ask them to contribute questions for the exams, and they grade at least half of the exams." It's a good opportunity that leads them to the most daunting - and rewarding - level of work: teaching their own course.
After a graduate student has passed candidacy, and they've done fine teaching pre-calc, then they can move on to calculus, or even higher. They make their own tests. They have a department outline, but they still get a faculty mentor, someone who's taught the course, so that they can bring the tests to the faculty member, ask questions. I like it when I can see that somebody else has taught the course, and I can pull a new faculty member in. I think some of the faculty have got a lot out of being a mentor. I think sometimes the faculty enjoy it too.
In 1140 and in calculus, I pair TAs up for peer mentors. And the minimum requirement is that they have to observe each other at least one time. It is helpful not only to get feedback but also to see someone else teaching the same course. It encourages them to talk to each other about teaching the class. When you study with a friend, and you answer a question, you learn as much by answering a question as you do by asking.
I think that no matter what you go into the ability to talk to a group of people clearly, communicate with a group of people that are non-specialists in a way that everyone can understand, is a benefit of the program. It doesn't matter whether they're going in to education or not.
That first day you walk into the room, fake it. Become an actor. The first day is the scariest. I learned that while there are people that are naturally gifted, teaching can be learned. And you can learn to teach well. And I think that's something that I didn't really know until I stated teaching. I just thought it happened. And I think as you progress, you learn there are some techniques. Walking into that first 1140 class, it's probably as frightening as I felt. It's not easy, but you get better, and you learn.
There's a lot to love about it. I think my favorite moment is when a student who's been struggling just gets it. I had one like that this week. The most rewarding moment is when a student whos's been struggling starts to do better, starts to get it, and they get excited.