“The Secret in education lies in respecting the student”Ralph Waldo Emmerson
The PGF blog so far has spoken about several fascinating things, such as fieldwork, mental health, how to attend conferences and make posters amongst other things. However, one area which has not been widely talked about is the role of Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) and teaching others at university level whilst undertaking your postgraduate study. For me, this is perhaps the most important training for the formation of our future lecturers within Higher Education. Indeed, it’s no secret amongst those I know, that it’s also the part of my PhD I’ve enjoyed the most. I’ve had the privilege myself to teach at numerous levels all the way from first year undergraduate up to masters’ level, from field classes in Tanzania to the (dreaded) exam marking. All tasks I’ve undertaken have required a certain skillset though, one which I’ve developed and built upon over time. There is not one ‘perfect’ teacher or the ‘perfect’ keys to success, each teacher is individual in their teaching philosophy, but here are a few points I’ve noted over the years.
First and foremost, teaching requires you to have a deep mutual respect for the student. Each student brings to his or her studies an important set of unique qualities which should never be underestimated. Often, I am impressed by the questions students will ask me and the creative processes they have. I see a fond interest from my students in multiple geographical concepts and they will often consider something I wouldn’t have myself. Indeed, the teaching process is not a one-way dynamic, I find myself learning from my students as well. Thus, respect for your students goes a long way. Not all academics, sadly, seem to display this. If you do, it’s likely to make the learning process more enjoyable for both parties and lead to more interesting discussions (e.g. at a seminar). Such a respect also allows you to continue learning, even after you might have finished your own qualifications.
Moreover, a good teacher listens. Academics from my past studies who I’ve been appreciative of have taken on feedback, responded to my emails and simply listened. As such, it enabled me during my studies to make the most of my degrees and develop my ability. I learnt from this example myself, aiming to always reply to student emails, to help with questions and concerns where I can, or if not signpost to others who can. I tend to give my email to students to contact me, just so that if they do think about something else later on they can get back to me about it. Moreover, in a seminar module last year, along with another GTA, asked the students to write feedback on anonymous sheets of paper. This enabled both of us to learn how the module could improve and what we in future could do to improve our own teaching, trying to take onboard what the students are actually thinking. Academia’s a busy career; email boxes overflowing, research one minute, teaching the next but it’s important to set at least a bit of the day aside to engage with the students you’re helping.
Finally, teaching is creative! Don’t be afraid to go outside the confines of traditional expectations of what teaching ‘should’ be. I’ve had the option of creating my own teaching activities through the years, which I’ve revelled in the challenge of doing. I make such activities as interactive and engaging as possible, to complement more traditional forms of knowledge exchange. One of my more famous activities I created for a fieldtrip back in the first year of being a GTA. It was a role play, designed to get a staff member playing a problematic interviewee, with a student who would be the interviewer, interviewing about a topic unknown to the staff member. The student would have to navigate the interview, at the end explaining what they thought the issues were and how they could overcome these in the field. The staff member would then have to guess the topic. To my delight, this activity has continued ever since I created it, for three years in a row now (even when I haven’t been on the staffing for that fieldtrip). A senior lecturer gave me written feedback on the activity, which read “…As an academic, through his teaching, I have given thought to how I might take some of his ideas and practice forward! The role play was particularly appropriate and generated considerable discussion and reflection among students. This session was excellent in all respects.” Such feedback showed me how the ability to create new teaching activities matters and is highly valued in the Higher Education sector. Although it is important to note, there are different types of learners, a role play would not be as useful to everyone. So, it’s important to be reflexive on your teaching and also develop a range of teaching which complements different learning styles (some a little more creative like this and others more traditional whilst still being innovative).
All in all, if you’re considering becoming a GTA go for it! You won’t know what teaching is like until you try it. It’s also a useful way to understand whether lecturing for you going forward may be the right career choice, with the PhD acting like a sort of apprenticeship. Teaching is a thoroughly rewarding career, I can’t get any better satisfaction from doing what I’m doing than knowing a future generation of geographers are taking an active interest in the discipline from the work others and myself are doing. If only you inspire a little, it opens up students’ career possibilities and ways of thinking. The best thing for me is still being in touch with some students a few years down the line, knowing that they’re all doing great things and that some have even been inspired to go on to do a PhD.
To further develop your teaching portfolio and aid your professional development check out the routes to fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (HEA): https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/
Dan Casey, PGF Chairperson 2017-2018