2015, Archives, December 2015, The MFA Years

Tips for Teaching

Image: ErgsArt

My first semester of graduate school is officially over. This time tomorrow it will be 2 and ½ years later and it will be finished.

One thing I haven’t talked about is being a Graduate Instructional Assistant. As a GIA, I led two 50-minute discussion sections each week. There were 25 students in each section. These accompanied a larger lecture (about 200 students) taught by a professor twice a week (which the students and I also attended). There were five GIAs total for this class.

Teaching was stressful for me. It became less stressful as the semester progressed, but the stress never completely dissipates. You could say the same thing about graduate school.

At the beginning, there was a lot of encouragement to borrow ideas from online teaching resources, USC’s Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE), and to talk with my peers to exchange ideas. But none of the resources told me how to structure my classroom time. My peers were nice people, but they had their own workload to handle, so we didn’t exchange ideas often. Any ideas that were exchanged were always talked about in vague terms, nothing concrete or specific.

The GIAs had weekly meetings with our professor. At our third meeting, I told them that my discussion section seemed boring and a bit agonizing for the students (and me). We were doing close readings of passages of Romeo and Juliet.

Well, what do you do to warm them up? My professor asked.

What do you mean “warm them up?”

Do you tell them what you’re going to talk about for the day, have them split into groups and discuss the text, and then come together as a class to discuss their ideas?


So, it was a bit frustrating at first. I hadn’t had any teaching experience and it took me three weeks to learn this/get it out of any of the teaching resources I had consulted.

From there, discussion sections went smoothly. This was how I structured my classroom time:

5-10 minutes of announcements/idle chit chat (e.g. How was your weekend?)

10-15 minutes of “Do you have any questions from the text?”/Introducing the first theme and have them break into small groups to talk about where these themes occur in the book

10-15 minutes of coming together and have them talk about what they found

At this point, depending on time, I either choose another theme for them to talk about or we wrap up class.

5-10 minutes of telling them what’s coming up in lecture and next week’s discussion/Remind them what to read for next class

When they did small group work, I sometimes asked them to have one person be the note taker and to have another person stand up and share their results. We’d go in a circle and discuss the themes that way. After each person shared, I would ask other students to expand on that thought or ask if anyone had any questions. Sometimes I told them what I thought about the particular passage, especially if the student had left out any key points.

For the following week’s discussion, sometimes I would have them bring a notecard for next class that had one thing they found interesting and one question they had about the text.

The structure changed sometimes, especially around midterms or finals. There would be prepping for those tests. When critical essays were coming up, I did a thesis workshop and a rough draft workshop. I had them bring in copies and exchange their drafts. I created a worksheet that had specific questions on it, so students could see if they were headed in the right direction.

The GIAship was an effective way to ease me into teaching, especially since I had zero teaching experience. It didn’t have as much pressure as completely creating and leading my own class, but it was enough to have me lesson plan how I wanted the class time structured and practice my public speaking skills.

Here are some other tips:

Learn your students’ names. I attended a teaching workshop where the leader said, “Someone said that the most beautiful music people hear is the sound of their own name.” I took that to heart and believe it. Everyone wants to be acknowledged.

Lesson plan and be prepared. It took me one to two hours to lesson plan for my class. Since I ran the same class twice, I did not have to create an entirely brand new plan, which was nice. It’s also good to plan a little too many things rather than too few. It was better to fill up the time rather than have 25 eyes starting at you, waiting for your next move.

If you can, try to remember little things that your students tell you. Every time someone told me they were sick and couldn’t come to class, the next time I saw them I told them that I hoped they felt better. Another student told me she had an important job interview. I wished her good luck. I followed up with a student who hadn’t turned in an important assignment, making sure they were okay. They were grateful for my concern. It’s little things like that, I think, that make you a memorable and, overall, good teacher and human being.

All in all, it was nice to get to know students and listen to them talk about their ideas surrounding the text. I had fun and made them laugh occasionally. I received some really nice thank you notes and words of encouragement about my own graduate studies once the semester was over.

PS-Next semester, I’ll be a tutor at the Writing Center for my stipend, instead of a GIA. I’m pretty excited about that because I’ve never worked at a writing center. And it should give me more time to write creatively. Wish me luck!



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