Natascha Chtena is a PhD student in Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena.
As long as you are pursuing a PhD, most people assume that you love or at least like teaching. Pressure increases if your degree is in the humanities or some other “ridiculously inapplicable” discipline. Then, they just see a “budding pedagogue” when they look at you. This stereotype, however, completely obscures the struggles and challenges related to working as a TA. Whether it’s a supervisor from hell, a bunch of backstabbing colleagues, a fear of public speaking, or just a crazy workload that ruins the experience, the truth is many of us can’t—or at least at some point couldn’t—stand teaching.
So if you recently started TAing and find yourself unable to enjoy or even bear it, breath in. You are not alone. Although, few PhDs openly admit that they hate teaching for fear of being judged or even professionally stigmatized, they are out there and they are significant in numbers. What can you do if you find yourself being one of them? Consider the following:
You may just be teaching the wrong kind of class for your personality and social skills. In other words, you may—unknowingly—be following a teaching style and philosophy that fundamentally conflicts with who you are and how you communicate. If you suspect this might be the case, explore options outside your program based on your skills and expertise. You will be surprised at how many different approaches to teaching one can encounter within a single university, school, and even department. Make a list of subjects you could potentially teach and see where in your school you could fit in. For me it made a huge difference switching from cultural studies to language teaching, although the first one is actually my scholarly area of concentration.
TAing will not automatically make you a good teacher. If you feel like you are failing, you have probably entered the classroom without adequate training. Even if your department offers a training workshop for new TAs, you can get incredible insights by exploring teacher training opportunities beyond that. Just after I finished my first quarter TAing, I attended a TA-training workshop in a different department, and my mind was blown with just how poorly I had done at leading discussions and how much better the humanities can be taught. Contact your school’s Office of Instructional Development (or equivalent), and if they’re a dead end contact departments that interest you directly. There are people out there who study how people learn and how to most effectively teach; take advantage of their expertise.
Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. In hindsight, one of the biggest mistakes I made as a first-time TA was not demanding the kind of support I needed from my extremely hands-off supervisor. As a result I always felt overwhelmed, ill-prepared, and out of place in the classroom. Some people are perfectly happy with the “just walk into the class and talk about X” kind of guidelines. If you’re not one of them, speak up. Whether it’s lesson plans, teaching resources, or extra training that you need, ask for it.
Get to really know your students. It’s a cliché, I know, and if you’re teaching a weekly discussion section or lab, it’s also almost impossible. But it’s worth every bit of your time and effort. The first time I TAd I didn’t even get round to memorizing everyone’s name. Teaching a daily class has enabled me to connect with my students in a way I never thought was possible. When I look at them I don’t see spoiled, disobedient, or lazy undergrads. I see a bunch of people who I genuinely care about, and through them I care about the class and about my teaching.
Don’t, however, allow TAing to take over your life. As important as bonding may be, you can’t invest too much of yourself into any TA position; save that for your children, your partner, and a job with actual potential (harsh but true). Many grad students get sucked up in TAing: they over-prepare, regularly meet students outside office hours, grade homework that could easily be peer-graded, prepare Powerpoints that they could find via Google, shy away from asking older TAs for teaching resources or help, and so on. Negative emotions start to build the day they burn out or simply realize how much time they are devoting to something “useless”—time that they cannot devote working on their research and doing what they need to do to graduate. Sound familiar?
Ask for feedback. The grad students that hate teaching often lack confidence and self-awareness. Feedback, however nerve-wracking, can change that. Ask your supervisor to sit in on one of your classes and provide feedback, find the strength to record and watch yourself teach, or seek feedback from your oral proficiency exam (if you’ve taken one). If you get light-headed at the mere thought of asking “outsiders” for feedback, consider inviting a friend with teaching experience to observe you in class. It’s also a good idea to ask your students to fill out mid-term evaluations, as they can foster student-teacher bonding. Students tend to appreciate that their experiences in your course matter to you and respond well when they feel that their feedback is valued.
Finally, is it teaching or TAing that you hate? Teaching and TAing are two distinct things that happen to overlap. If you are certain it is teaching that you can’t stand, remember that although it is 2-5 years of your life, it is not forever. It will be painful and depressing but you will get through it. On that note, if you were planning on pursuing an academic career you will want to get organized: research non-academic job opportunities in your field and start building the required skill-set. However, in my own experience it is usually TAing that grad students have a problem with. And while there’s not much you can do about the low pay, long hours, and lack of agency, I’m hoping that the suggestions above will help you with those aspects of TAing that you can influence in order to improve your overall teaching experience.
Do you have any other tips for grad students who hate teaching? Share them in the comments below!
[Image by Flickr user thedarkfmd and used under creative commons licensing.]