Feature

For many graduate teaching assistants (TAs), the prospect of teaching a new subject for the first time-even if it's a subject they know inside and out-can be nerve-wracking. That's perfectly normal. In fact, even the most seasoned professor can feel a twitch of anxiety about teaching, says Karla Lassonde, a fourth-year cognitive psychology graduate student at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

"My adviser has always told me that if you're not anxious, it means you don't care," says Lassonde. "He's the most collected individual when he's in the classroom. Hearing him say that, you realize feelings of butterflies are normal, especially for a new instructor."

Whether you're assisting a professor or teaching your own class, there are things you can do to tame those butterflies:

  • Find a teaching mentor. Michael B. Madson, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi, recommends that the first-time TA identify a mentor with a strong interest in teaching.A mentor can help you with such practical matters as creating a syllabus, planning a lecture or establishing evaluation criteria. Madson, for example, sits down with student teachers once a week to discuss how their classes are going and address their concerns. Questions about grading, excused absences and other matters that aren't necessarily covered in how-to classes or books come up frequently, he says. If asked, he even goes into TAs' classrooms to watch them in action and evaluate their teaching.

  • Get experience. Even if you're just helping a professor with his or her class, you can still gain valuable experience. Madson's TA, for instance, delivers lectures for his classes in content areas she knows well.

Lassonde also lectured as a professor's assistant. An occasional "mini-presentation," she says, gives TAs a taste of what it's like to move from student to teacher without feeling too overwhelmed.

"You get to feel the pressure and all the other feelings that come with standing up in front of people," says Lassonde.

But even if you don't get any classroom time, she says, you can still find ways to prepare yourself. Take any chance you can get to do public speaking, recommends Lassonde, a veteran of high school and college debate teams.

  • Don't reinvent the wheel. When it's time to teach your own class, seek advice from those who have taught it before, says Karen D. Bagley, a second-year doctoral student in clinical psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

"For a new class, you could be spending upward of 10 hours a week just preparing for one lecture," she says.

With insights from others, she says, you can spend less time preparing material and more time thinking about how to deliver it. When Bagley first taught a class on personality, she consulted several years' worth of syllabi posted on a departmental Web site. She was able to see which books and activities previous professors had used with the class and use them as a guide as she built her own course. If such a resource isn't available, says Bagley, seek out others who have taught the subject in your department or at other schools. Networking at APA's Annual Convention and similar venues is also helpful, she adds.

  • Watch yourself and others. In the TA orientation offered by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign psychology department, students watch and critique videotapes of themselves and other TAs presenting "mini-lectures." Videotapes can do more than just let you know if you tend to mumble or fail to make eye contact; they can let you see how others see you.

"It's reassuring," says Brian A. Gordon, a third-year doctoral student studying brain cognition in the department. "You think you're coming off as nervous, but when you see yourself, you look fine. People don't realize that you're freaking out."

Similarly, he says, it's helpful to sit in on classes taught by other TAs to see how they handle such difficulties as incorporating PowerPoint slides into their lectures, getting students to participate in discussions and handling questions when you don't know the answer. Also think about what made your favorite teachers so effective and use those same strategies in your own classes, he adds.

  • Take a class on teaching. Many schools require student teachers to participate in orientations, courses or practica on teaching. Whether they're psychology-specific or more general, such programs generally cover topics such as how to write a syllabus, plan activities and handle the first day of class. That kind of thorough preparation will help make the class more enjoyable for both you and your students, says Gordon.

"You want to be not just competent knowledge-wise, you want your students to have fun," he says.

  • Take advantage of Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) resources. Launched in 1993 by the Council of Graduate Schools and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, PFF is a national program that prepares graduate students for teaching careers by encouraging them to take advantage of workshops, mentoring and opportunities to visit nearby campuses to observe faculty. When Lassonde felt ill-equipped to assessstudents' work, for instance, a PFF workshop that offered tips on efficient and fair grading helped herfeel ready.

"The program is really good at helping you with any aspect of your teaching," she says.

More information is available here.

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.