1 Starting to Teach

The purpose of this handbook is to provide Graduate Teaching Assistants with practical information and insight into teaching. It includes some basic tips and suggestions on planning, preparation and delivery of class teaching and assessment particularly aimed at newcomers to the profession. It includes examples of practice from past class teachers, case studies from Economics teaching, and links to further resources.

1.1 Types of Class Teaching

Classes can take a number of forms. In quantitative courses, the class will usually be used to work through problem sets that have been disseminated to students in advance. In qualitative classes the time may be spent discussing key questions, critiquing journal articles and or clarifying and enhancing concepts introduced in the lecture. A few GTAs will support "workshops" rather than classes. In these you may spend much of the time giving students oneto- one or small group support in a context where there might be quite a large group working at computers, or on particular small group assignments.

Whatever the precise context, class time needs to be distinctive from lectures, and should be time in which students are encouraged to develop their own thinking on a subject together with their abilities to present and discuss their ideas. Whatever the particular function of your class, you will want your students to be actively engaged and to participate. The guidelines below are intended to help you accomplish this goal. It is also necessary that you discuss the approach you intend to take with the teacher responsible for the course, and desirable that you also take time to discuss your classes with other graduate teaching assistants.

1.2 Beginnings

The first class with a new group of students is always an exciting time. Both you and the students may feel nervous and shy in the new group. Take the time and effort to make everyone feel welcome and at ease in the class. Establish rapport with the students and develop a positive working environment for all. There are many approaches that GTAs use to do this. Here are some suggestions:

  • "I always introduce myself and give the students my contact details and office hours first. I then go on and ask them to introduce themselves to the class, asking for their name, degree and why they chose this course"
  • "I tried this last term - I said please introduce yourself to the person next to you. Then I asked each student to introduce their neighbour to the rest of the class"
  • "I am lucky, I am teaching a subject close to my research and so I try and tell the students why I love the subject. I ask them what interests them about it and from there explain the syllabus we will be covering"

You may find it useful to have a clear agenda for your first session, to be sure that you remember to:

  • Introduce yourself and provide your contact details;
  • Encourage students to get familiar with each other;
  • Provide an overview of the course, or at least how classes work within the course - including how students need to work with course content and the kinds of skills they may be developing as well;
  • Work with the class to agree "ground rules" and ways you will work together (e.g. discuss expectations around weekly workload/reading, punctuality, meeting assessment deadlines, student contribution to discussions etc. If these matters are not discussed early on, it may be difficult to sort out problems that arise later.);
  • Ensure some time in the first session is devoted to "real" work - ie: subject specialist work; and
  • Set the group up for the coming week (readings, roles, your office hours, their next lecture etc).
  • Mention any online resources that support the course.

Top Tip

An approach that has worked really well for an Economics GTA, is learning names of her students and addressing them during class while discussing the problem sets, using their first names.

1.3 Handling Nerves

Most public speakers say that they feel most nervous just before they begin to talk and during the first 5 minutes or so, and then things get much easier. During your preparation it is worth considering how you will handle your own anxieties and nerves. What are your symptoms? You need to learn how to hide these symptoms and pretend to be more confident. For example, do your hands shake? Then avoid holding your notes in your hand! Does your mouth go dry? Remember to bring a bottle of water along. Often by finding ways of controlling the symptoms, you will find that you are no longer feeling quite so anxious.

Indeed some of the affects of the extra adrenalin you feel are a good thing and will help you to improve your presentation. However, nerves do need controlling and you may like to consider how to be "kind to yourself," for instance, by using the many active learning techniques described in this handbook. If your mouth goes dry, take a glass of water in the room with you. If you fear that your mind may go blank, make 'user-friendly' notes with key terms and prompts in bold or in different colours. Remember to breathe deeply and slowly if you feel panicky. Know yourself and plan to help yourself when you feel most ill at ease.

Another way to avoid stumbling due to nerves is to prove a brief structure or list of the topics that will be touched on in the class. This gives the class teacher a few minutes to get accustomed to addressing the class before embarking on a detailed explanation while simultaneously guiding the GTA as well.