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Student Affairs

At the Front of the Class: Developing Your Teaching Skills
Douglas J. Pippin

Learning how to teach is only one of many skills a graduate student learns before entering the professional world. Teaching is a skill that will benefit you even if you are not seeking a position at a college or university, because a number of situations outside the classroom call for the ability to instruct others clearly and effectively. Enhancing one's teaching abilities will only help you in the long run.

Getting Teaching Practice

A teaching assistantship is probably the most common way in which graduate students get practical teaching experience. Funding for these, as most of us realize, is limited, and the competition is tough. Before applying to a particular school, make sure that you are aware of its individual policies on funding students through assistantships. Teaching assistantships operate in different ways. First, the amount of teaching that you do as an assistant varies widely. You may be assigned to a discussion section in which you have some latitude to decide what to teach. Or, you may only act as a grader and not get any experience in front of a class. You also may find that some schools, as a rule, do not grant teaching assistantships to first-year students. You should find out how you will be evaluated for funding after your first year and how decisions are made to renew your assistantship once you receive one. Of course, it is rare to have a choice of assignments from which to pick, but do not hesitate to express your interest in getting classroom experience.

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.

Honing Your Teaching Skills

One effective way to develop good teaching skills is to have good role models. If you know professors or individuals who are effective instructors, talk to them about their approach and teaching methods. Whether in a classroom or field setting, the best teachers have usually spent a great deal of time thinking about and preparing for instruction.

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.

A Teaching Portfolio

The responsibilities of teaching assistants vary from school to school (and within different departments at any one school). It is important, therefore, to have a way to illustrate what involvement you have had in the preparation, teaching, and grading of a course. A teaching portfolio is one way to present your work. The preparation of a portfolio is an ongoing process, beginning the first time you assist or teach a course or program. In fact, the process of assembling your teaching materials and noting changes in your approaches to teaching is a major benefit of preparing a portfolio (L. M. Lambert, 1996, Building a Professional Portfolio. In University Teaching: A Guide for Graduate Students, edited by L. M. Lambert, S. L. Tice, and P. H. Featherstone, pp. 147-155. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, New York).

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.

Moving on

You may have the opportunity, while still a student, to advance from an assistant (paid or otherwise) to an academic instructor. This can be both a very anxious and very exciting situation. When the opportunity arrives to spread your wings, the extra steps you have taken to record your teaching plans and methods will be your biggest asset in preparing classes of your own.

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.


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