Teaching the teachers: Graduate teaching assistants to attend workshop

Teaching the teachers: Graduate teaching assistants to attend workshop

The University of Alabama Graduate School is hosting the 29th Annual Graduate Teaching Assistant Workshop in the Bryant Conference Center on August 13 and 14Photo courtesy of Edward Guy

Behind every graduate teaching assistant is months of planning by teams of people culminating in an immersive two-day workshop designed to prepare the newest crop of GTAs for 
the classroom.

The University of Alabama Graduate School is hosting its 29th annual Graduate Teaching Assistant Workshop on Aug. 13 and 14. The workshop will take place in the Bryant Conference Center for roughly 300 new graduate teaching assistants.

“The aim of the workshop is really a total immersion sort of thing, to give them a lot of tools that they can work with as they start off their careers now as GTAs,” said Cathy Pagani, associate dean of the Graduate School. “It’s an important assignment for them so we want to prepare them and make them successful in the classroom.”

New GTAs in attendance will each receive a binder filled with printouts of every presentation given at the workshop, including discussions on legal issues, effective communication and syllabus creation, among other things. In addition, the new GTAs are broken down into smaller groups led by a GTA Fellow in which the new GTAs give three minute practice lessons to their peers.

“It does not have to be in their discipline, so if you’re a biology GTA you do not have to do a teaching demo on something in biology—you can talk about rewiring a lamp if you want to,” Pagani said. “But they’re recorded, and it’s done in peer groups and then the teaching is critiqued by a lead, experienced GTA Fellow.”

GTA Fellows are “experienced GTAs recognized for superior teaching in their respective colleges,” according to the graduate catalog. This year’s workshop will have 10 Fellows to allow for smaller peer groups on the second day of the workshop. Lunch is provided both days, and informal Q&As with experienced GTAs and graduate school personnel are scheduled for those times to answer any questions new GTAs may have. The workshop also gives them the chance to meet GTAs outside of their department.

Another goal of the workshop is to show the new GTAs all the resources they have and where to go when they have a question, Pagani said.

“There’s this whole group of people right behind them, you know, and they can just turn around and say, ‘What do I do if this issue happens?’ or ‘I have a question about my syllabus— how do I fix this?’ They know they have resources,” Pagani said.

Corrie Harris served as a GTA for five years while completing her Ph.D. in educational psychology. She is graduating in August, thus ending her role as a GTA, but has been asked to return to the workshop as a GTA Fellow.

“I’d advise new GTAs to take advantage of resources such as the new college teaching certificate program offered through the College of Education,” Harris said. “It’s a way to build on the initial training offered in the GTA workshop and receive direct mentoring for improving one’s skills in the classroom.”

Pagani said a strong team of individuals came together to make this year’s GTA workshop happen.

“It really does take a village. Everyone in the grad school is involved in this,” Pagani said. 

At the end of each workshop participants are asked to evaluate their experiences at the workshop, an important step in preparing for the following year.

“As Dr. Pagani said, it’s a village of grad school personnel helping, but every one of those 300 students that goes through it every year helps inform the changes that we make to improve it every year so it’s a collaborative effort between us as staff and the students who take it, and that’s how it moves forward every year,” said David Francko, dean of the Graduate School.

After the workshop, new GTAs will have a small amount of time to tweak their syllabi and lectures before starting classes on Aug. 19.

Graduate teaching assistants are just one sub-population of supported graduate students. Francko said roughly 40 percent of graduate students serve in a graduate assistant role, including GTAs and graduate research assistants.

GTA selection takes place at the departmental level with approval at the administrative level. Francko said there are some exceptions, but in most cases a department has to have a graduate program in order to have GTAs.

Teaching is an important skill for anyone regardless of whether or not they end up an educator, Francko said. The presentations given at the workshop are meant to help the students in the long run as well.

“If they’re in a corporate setting, evidence of good teaching is the same kind of skill that you’d need if you were running a board meeting or you’re having to supervise employees and communicate other information to them,” Francko said. “That’s a real transferable skill.”

Lisa Gaskill is a Ph.D. student in educational leadership, policy and technology studies who attended the workshop in 2013. She serves as a GTA in the College of Education’s department of curriculum and instruction, teaching courses in the elementary education program.

“As a former K-12 educator, I understand the importance of teacher training and professional development,” Gaskill said. “Attending the workshop for new graduate teaching assistants in 2013 helped prepare me for my transition into college teaching. The constructive feedback that I received during the breakout sessions was especially beneficial.”

GTAs earn more than valuable, transferable skills in their role.

“It does two things: it provides them with a stipend and they also get, if they’re on a regularly budgeted position, they also get a tuition scholarship,” Francko said.

Francko said many students receive funding through different channels while completing their degree.

“Graduate education needs to help drive the research mission of the University and vice versa, and in a good, well-running system people get training as GTAs in part of their graduate career and then they have external funding for research purposes as another part of their program,” Francko said.

One goal of the Graduate School is to diversify the graduate assistants by spreading out the appointments so that no one student holds the same supported position for too long.

“A typical Ph.D. student in chemistry, for example, might come in as a GTA for their first year or maybe two years and then be on a research grant for a few years. They could even be on a graduate school fellowship or a grant-funded fellowship for their fifth year,” Francko said.

Francko said ideally they’d be able to increase the number of appointments, but with federal money harder to get, the amount of external income isn’t high enough to support more students.

Due to recent changes in IRS laws, the University will no longer be able to pay premiums for student health insurance coverage for US-based graduate students. International students' policies have not been affected, according to John Chambers, director of administration for the Graduate School. 

“UA had originally offered to pay the fall semester 2015 premium payment to United Healthcare Student Resources for single coverage for most graduate assistants, if the student employee opted to have that coverage,” said Chris Bryant, assistant director of media relations, in an emailed statement. “In lieu of that payment, for the fall 2015 semester, the University will provide a one-time increase of $476 for the graduate assistants with a half-time assignment.”

UA officials said they would be awaiting “more definitive legal guidance” in the coming months. The stipend is intended to allow graduate assistants and fellows to purchase their own health insurance.

“Until further notice, paid student health insurance will not be included in any future offers made to graduate assistants or graduate fellows,” Bryant said.

As a five-year veteran of the GTA program, Harris said GTAs should lean on and learn from the faculty in their department to get as much out of the appointment as they can.

“Working as a GTA is challenging, but rewarding,” Harris said. “The chance to learn from experienced faculty is a great one; I encourage GTA’s to take advantage of the expertise of faculty members in their home department, and seek feedback in order to benefit from their experiences in the classroom.”

It’s also important for GTAs, old and new, to manage their time well. Rob Cook, a second year Ph.D. student in operations management, said grading is one of the more time-consuming parts of the job.

“The most important thing for a new TA to know is that grading always takes longer than you think,” Cook said. “It is like having a job that doesn’t have strict hours to plan around. So, grade assignments as soon as you can, both so students get the maximum benefit possible, but also so you can have a buffer for unexpected class work for yourself.”

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