Not receiving an assistantship does not mean that you will not be able to get any classroom experience. You could volunteer your time in exchange for the opportunity to teach. The actual teaching you do in a volunteer situation varies with each supervising professor, so make sure you know what is expected of you and what you will get out of the experience before you commit your time. Opportunities exist outside the college setting as well. Many historical sites, parks, and museums have public education programs. You may be able to teach a short course or seminar to the general public. Just getting the word out that you are interested may be enough to open some of these alternative doors.
Feedback is also important in becoming a better teacher. You may be in a program where student assistants are regularly evaluated and critiqued. Your class may be observed, you might be videotaped, or you could receive a written evaluation. Take advantage of these opportunities. If you are not formally evaluated or assessed through class observation, discuss this with your supervisor and let him or her know that you are interested in feedback about your teaching performance. You might have to create your own evaluation form (completed anonymously, of course!) for your students. Be sure to study the responses to your inquiries. Over time, you will be able to fine-tune your presentation style through the comments you receive.
Be sure to keep a careful record of your plans and notes for the classes/programs you teach. You will notice an improvement in your skill overall if you have this material to call on later. There are many other sources that are also available for instructional support. Many departments keep course syllabi on hand for reference. The Internet is another way in which professors distribute course information that you may find helpful in generating teaching ideas.
The contents of a portfolio will vary with your experiences. In general, it should contain elements that will demonstrate your teaching experience. A basic teaching portfolio might include a cover letter, your curriculum vitae, a statement on your teaching experience, course/project information, student evaluations, a supervisor's report, and letters of recommendation. The course information could contain items such as a course syllabus or project description, tests, quizzes, handouts, and special projects. You may choose to include examples of course materials that were collaborative efforts, either with a professor or with other graduate students. Be sure to identify them as such and indicate the extent of your involvement.
A portfolio can be an advantage when it comes time to apply for a job or promotion. Not all employers, however, are familiar with reviewing teaching portfolios. While some employers may not be interested in specific details of your teaching, a few will want to see everything that you have prepared in your teaching career. You can tailor the materials to fit the specifications of a particular job opening and limit items to those of interest to your prospective employer.
Having some preparation for teaching is only part of a graduate student's education. It is often difficult to balance research, studies, teaching, and your family and social life. However, if you take steps to monitor and track your progress as a teacher, you will be able to make improvements that will ultimately turn you into an effective educator.
Douglas J. Pippin is a member of the Student Affairs Committee, an instructor at the State University of New York at Oswego, and a doctoral student at Syracuse University.