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  • Writer's pictureCharlie Rex

Reflecting on my first year as a GTA

Of all the amazing opportunities that come with #PhDLife, teaching was the one I was most excited to get involved in. I made sure to ask about potential GTA (Graduate Teaching Assistant) work when I toured UofG after receiving my offer, because getting to teach was genuinely as important to me as my PhD project. During my undergrad, I remember really admiring the GTAs who worked with us during labs and field classes. I was always really impressed by how much they seemed to know, and incredibly grateful that they were around during the sessions- somehow asking them all my dumb questions was much less scary than speaking to the lecturer. So, when teaching opportunities were advertised during the first year of my PhD, you can imagine how excited I was to finally get involved in this aspect of University life.

How did you get involved?

My main department- SUERC- doesn’t have any undergraduate students (except those doing final year projects in the labs), but thankfully Geographical and Earth Sciences (GES), my second department, does. Because of how varied the courses are in GES, there’s plenty of GTA work available for PhD students. I applied to teach in June of my first year and was assigned to two modules- one Geography and one Earth Sciences. The roles were slightly different in each- I was leading tutorials in Geography (to classes anywhere between 6 and 12 students), and in Earth Sciences I was demonstrating in labs (which generally had class sizes between 20 and 25). There wasn’t any expectation that you had done extensive formal teaching beforehand, but all new GTAs do some training with LEADS before they start.

How was teaching for the first time?

My first sessions were nerve-wracking. I was worried about getting the students to interact with each other- I really didn’t want it to be like another lecture for them. Thankfully there were plenty of staff and more experienced GTAs available to provide insight and help come up with ideas to keep the learning experience engaging. I felt a little twinge of guilt every time I opened breakout rooms, but I found that putting the students in pairs or trios to discuss ideas prevented them relying too much on me (simulating a technique known as think-pair-share). Another thing which worked really well was setting scenario-based tasks (we ran one session called “Fossil Hunters”) which really lifted the energy of the (virtual) room. I was a little worried about not being as knowledgeable about some aspects of the course, but in reality I found you didn’t need to know everything perfectly- having huge amounts of enthusiasm and asking the right questions of your students is plenty.

And teaching online? How was that?

I was an online tutor for 5 years prior to starting my PhD, so I was actually slightly less nervous about the online aspect of teaching. I’m definitely used to dealing with technical issues. But the biggest challenge was teaching to larger groups in this setting. It’s really hard to gauge students’ understanding when you’re on Zoom- especially when you’re working with first years, who are sometimes too nervous to ask questions. We asked for feedback via polls quite a lot to bridge this communication void. A secondary challenge was delivering labs on zoom- microscope work in particular. Thankfully there were plenty of online resources available to help. One session we even managed a virtual fieldtrip to the Alps!

What were your highlights from GTA work this year?

I loved learning from my students- my Geography tutorials were very discussion based, which gave everyone time to voice their opinion. A couple of the later tutorials were centred around Climate Change (which is really closely linked to my PhD) and some of the topics we talked about during those sessions blew my mind! In a year filled with uncertainty and quite a bit of PhD stress, taking an hour out of my day to debate hot topics such as global warming was so much fun.

Header image from Unsplash

This blog post was originally published on the UofG PGR Blog. You can read the original here.

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