Career Center

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Psychology graduate students across the country will step in front of classrooms, grade papers and answer students' questions this fall as graduate teaching assistants (GTAs). But as the semester gets under way, some GTAs may be in for a rude awakening.

"On the surface it all looks so easy," says Emporia State University associate professor and GTA supervisor Brian Schrader, PhD. "But in reality, teaching is a lot of work. You have to not only completely know and absorb the material yourself, but then be able to turn around and express the information right back to your students."

So what's a GTA to do?

Prepare, prepare, prepare, say grad students with teaching experience. Here are a handful of ways to prep for a successful teaching assistantship this fall.

DO YOUR RESEARCH

Pull together your textbook, any suggested syllabi and other teaching materials as soon as possible and devote your summer to getting as much of your preparation done ahead of time as you can, Schrader advises. "Because if you don't, you're going to end up preparing your lecture the night before you teach-and not only is that extremely difficult and stressful, it's not fair to your students," he explains.

To cover your bases:

  • Read several textbooks thoroughly, advises Audrey Ervin, a third-year doctoral student in counseling psychology at the University of Memphis. That way, you can see different approaches to the material and then synthesize what's most relevant.

  • Tap old course materials, such as notes from related classes you've taken.

  • Talk to GTAs and faculty who have taught the same course you will teach, and ask them for copies of their syllabi, says Kim Darnell, PhD, who supervises psychology GTAs at Georgia State University. "It's worth sitting in on the class you're going to teach," she says. "It's [also] worth finding out what faculty in the department are known for being good teachers and asking them if you can watch them teach."

SEEK DEVELOPMENT OPPORTUNITIES

Take advantage of conference workshops and seminars and your department's formal GTA programs. For example, at Emporia State University, GTAs attend a three-day teaching orientation before the school year begins.

Even if your department doesn't offer formalized teaching training, you can still create your own training opportunities. At the University of Kentucky, Valerie Leake, a second-year doctoral student in counseling psychology, and three fellow students are teaching different sections of the same course, so they meet regularly to share ideas about what does and doesn't work. Another strategy is to observe other GTAs teaching-something Fred Sanborn, a sixth-year doctoral student at Kansas State University, says was invaluable to him.

KNOW YOUR JOB

Work through how you will share course duties if you will co-teach the course or are an assistant for a class taught by a faculty member or more senior graduate student. Talk with them about their expectations of you before classes begin, say students with experience. Some faculty expect their GTAs to come to class occasionally and record grades. Others expect GTAs to grade a hundred term papers and answer students' e-mails.

"Know how much time per week you're expected to work," advises first-year Pennsylvania State University graduate student Amanda Matthews, who GTAs for a large introductory psychology course. "Structure weekly or biweekly meetings where you can talk with the professor not just about student considerations, but how you think the class is responding to the teacher overall."

GET ORGANIZED

Budget time into your schedule to complete your teaching tasks. New teachers often underestimate how long it takes to design and grade tests or answer student questions, says Emporia State's Schrader.

Also, develop an organization system that works for you and stick with it. "I am the file folder queen," says Leake, who keeps a folder that includes transparencies, lecture notes and materials for each chapter she covers. She keeps her grades in a spreadsheet program on her computer-a good place to keep other course materials as well.

In fact, Schrader says he encourages his students to computerize as much of their lecture presentations as possible. Those saved files will provide a good starting point for the next time they teach.

For her part, Audrey Ervin creates a three-ring binder for each class she teaches. She separates lectures, student grades and attendance records with dividers, and she also includes notes on conversations with students.

NAIL DOWN YOUR SYLLABUS

Create a thought-out syllabus, including class policies on attendance, tests and late homework.

"When you take the time to craft a clear, detailed syllabus that has your policies in it, you no longer have to make those calls on the fly that can be hard to make when you have a student crying in your office," explains Georgia State's Darnell.

Kansas State's Sanborn can attest to that. As a new GTA, Sanborn stated in his syllabus that late work would be penalized, but didn't say exactly how. When he took off more points than the class had expected for late work, "A student called me on it," he says. "When it comes to grades and [test] dates, for both them and me, it's good to be very concrete and spell everything out."