Teaching assistant: The first step to a larger profession

MELINDA CHEN / AGGIE

Campus TAs weigh in on the value of their experiences

The teaching assistant (TA) in a classroom can play a large role in student success. These individuals are resources for students who may not be ready to approach a professor for one-on-one help, and teaching assistants often hold discussion sessions with smaller portions of classes to create a more personalized environment. Becoming a teaching assistant is a common way to get started in the field of education since it gives basic classroom experience.  

With such a large student body and a need for new voices in the classroom, becoming a teaching assistant is a position of huge significance. Two teaching assistants, Abbey Berghaus and Liza Wood, spoke about their experiences and how they approach this unique opportunity that impacts the lives of college students.

Abbey Berghaus is entering her third year in the Ph.D. program of the sociology department and has been a teaching assistant for three years. During her undergraduate studies at the University of Georgia, she explained the role her teaching assistants played in her learning.

“Our TAs were a lot less involved than they are here,” Berghaus said. “They were more responsible for grading, and they didn’t really have office hours.”

As a TA for UC Davis, the shift from having TAs being not as involved in student learning to being one of the core components of a class is something Berghaus has embraced and taken on with great care and meticulous study. Part of her experience has been assisting for both undergraduate and graduate classes, which she says differ.  

“The experience really differs based on who the instructor is,” Berghaus said. “My first year as a TA, I worked with a lot of instructors who were very hands-off, so I created a lot of my own curriculum. Last year, I mostly did upper level classes where I didn’t have sections, so I was just grading.”

Participating in discussion sections is a key aspect of undergraduate learning, where students can work with their TAs and receive the personalized help they may not receive during the lecture portion of class. Working with different ideas and a unique group of students can help a TA think about a critical concept differently and how to approach such a concept in future sections. Berghaus also acknowledged how the different relationships TAs have with professors can impact their personal growth and their ability to reach out with ideas or tips.

“Right now I’m [assisting] for my major professor, who is the head of the committee on my various steps throughout my program,” Berghaus said. “That’s different because I know her really well, and that gives me the opportunity to see how the person that I admire the most teaches their classes.”

The exposure to different teaching styles and personalities gives TAs the opportunity to see what works in one classroom setting and what may not work in another. Berghaus also detailed her reliance upon studying how a professor teaches. She takes careful note of what methods a professor uses and how a professor keeps his/her students engaged during a lecture.

Eventually, Berghaus may find herself in her own classroom as the professor of her own subject, as she noted, “Being in a TA position does excite me about the thought of teaching.”

Liza Wood, another TA who is in her first year of her Ph.D. program within the ecology graduate group, shared her experience of working as a teaching assistant as well. While her undergraduate studies were filled with phases of personal growth and discovery, she found two mentors along the way that pushed her to take the next step in becoming a TA.

“As an undergraduate student, I had two really great mentors who helped me a lot with my research and were women that I really looked up to,” Wood said.

Wood used the knowledge and expertise of these women to take up a peer facilitating role as an undergraduate. From there, she took on supplemental instruction in chemistry. With this experience, Wood later taught at a university designing courses on food systems. This gave her much greater freedom in determining how the learning in the class would take shape. Wood spoke on the differences between teaching her own class and now being a teaching assistant.

“As a TA, coming from having complete power over a classroom to being more responsive is the difference,” Wood said. “The idea is still there: whenever I’m reading or learning or listening to content that is being taught, my brain is constantly saying, ‘Where is the cool conversation in there?’”

Her primary focus is taking a concept and making it appeal to students by allowing them to make connections and draw conclusions, though she is always open to “asking a random question and seeing what happens,” as she appreciates open input. Even with having prior teaching experience, she still finds herself growing and learning more about the complexities of learning and dealing with students in a variety of ways.

“Number one is the humility of not knowing everything,” Wood said. “Especially teaching in a field that’s a little bit out of [my] comfort zone, making sure that I can facilitate conversations where students aren’t walking away with the wrong idea.”

As Wood continues to grow and find balance within the TA experience, she explained on why she is a teaching assistant and reinforced her ultimate goals and beliefs.

“I’m doing it because I really love facilitating discussions, and I think I learn a lot from being in classrooms with different opinions,” Wood said. “As someone new to the Davis campus, it helps me get to know a little bit more about the undergrad population and the diversity of classes.”

As Liza Wood continues along her journey of being a teaching assistant and refining her teaching skills, she may very well be on the path to the fulfilling career choice she desires.

Written by: Vincent Sanchez  –  features@theaggie.org