Interested in teaching but not sure if it’s really for you? Wondering what support is available for PhD students who teach? Sky Herington shares her experience of working as a Graduate Teaching Assistant at Warwick and some top tips for how to get started.
I came to teaching French as a PhD student from a background teaching languages at secondary school level. While I knew teaching in Higher Education would be a new experience – working with older, more mature students in smaller classes, teaching higher level skills – I hadn’t quite anticipated just how much of a different job being a GTA (Graduate Teaching Assistant) would be. It came as somewhat of a shock, when first observing a colleague teaching a group of first-year undergraduates, to find myself in a room of ten students quietly but enthusiastically discussing their ideas, making notes, listening to each other… learning. Where was the shouting? The running around? The headlocks?!
Ok so my experience working in schools wasn’t that bad (I actually loved being a secondary teacher). And this is not to say that some of the skills I learned from school teaching haven’t come in handy, or that students don’t face some of the same challenges and barriers that exist in the secondary school classroom. But I highlight these differences to make the point that teaching at university level is likely to be something very new for all graduates. So if you’re nervous about taking up a teaching role because of a lack of experience, my key piece of advice is: don’t be! If you’re in a position to apply to work as a GTA, I would wholeheartedly recommend going for it.
While teaching in Higher Education comes with its own challenges, it has been one of the highlights of my last couple of years at Warwick. This is really thanks to the students I have taught, who have invariably been lovely, and have challenged me to rethink my own approaches to topics and texts with their fresh insight and new ideas (shoutout to my SMF groups this year!). Their enthusiasm for the subject is infectious, and reminds me, when I’m having a difficult day with the thesis, why I am doing research in French. Teaching has also allowed me to develop other skills: having to clarify my own knowledge and understanding to clearly communicate ideas has helped me refine papers for conferences and given me more confidence when presenting. And of course, it’s great to have this experience on your CV for future jobs, whether in academia or teaching elsewhere, through schemes such as The Brilliant Club’s Researchers in Schools programme.
So if you’re interested in starting teaching at university-level, here are my top three tips for beginning work as a GTA:
Access training: the APP PGR (Academic and Professional Pathway for Postgraduates who Teach) is an incredible accredited course run by the Warwick Academic Development Centre and is available to anyone who is teaching at least fifteen hours over the duration of the course. During the training you’ll attend a number of core workshops and complete work remotely, all of which can count towards becoming an Associate Fellow of the HEA (Higher Education Academy). I learned so much during this training. It was also a lot of fun and a good opportunity to get to know other PhD students from other disciplines. It’s also worth speaking to colleagues in your department for teaching hints and tips: my mentor in French has been a huge support and has given me lots of opportunities to observe her seminars.
Keep clear boundaries: My director of studies recently likened teaching to a gas ‘that leaks into every available space’. This is not untrue. I’ve found that I’ve had to be really strict with myself about boundaries and clearly allocate time for research and time for teaching. I have quickly learned that there is no such thing as a finished lesson plan: you’ll always feel that it could be better, so if you want to avoid finding yourself tweaking animations on your PowerPoint at 3am, you’ll need to set yourself clear limits.
Know your rights: This is linked to setting boundaries: you might want to revisit your contract hours so that you’re clear on the breakdown of the tasks (preparation, office hours, marking etc.) you’re being paid for. There are often sessions run by other GTAs to help you navigate your contract at the beginning of the academic year which I have found useful, so these could be worth looking out for. Finally, I would recommend joining a union, such as the UCU: personally being a member has helped me better understand my rights as a worker and given me an opportunity to get to know GTAs working in other departments.
Finally, if you’re a PhD Student at Warwick, why not join our PGR Teachers event? Sign up for it on Teams!
What is your experience of working as a GTA? Do you have any top tips to share? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below.
Sky Herington is a third-year PhD candidate in French and Theatre and Performance Studies. Her research looks at embodiment and power in post-colonial Francophone Congolese theatre. She has taught on undergraduate culture and language modules in the School of Modern Languages and Culture. Twitter: @SkyHerington