The 2017 Teaching Assistant Orientation Hosted over 225 Participants

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TA orientation people at tables

This year’s Teaching Assistant Orientation, on August 22, 2017, was a full house with over 225 new and returning graduate assistants and presenters. Faculty and staff from across the university presented on supporting students, teaching and teaching with technology, and managing teaching-related tasks. Although this is a general orientation, and many departments have their own specialized orientation for teaching assistants, over 35 different departments were represented at this large event. Graduate teaching assistants from across campus gathered to learn from the presenters, but also to learn from each other. This year, the majority of the participants were pursuing a master’s degree, however approximately 25% were pursuing a doctorate degree.

Each year new graduate teaching assistants are encouraged to attend the orientation by their departments. This year almost 30 GTAs returned to the orientation for a second time, with a broad range of experience levels. Some had only taught one or two semesters, while some had taught over 10. There were a lot of engaging conversations happening around the room.

Initial feedback from the participant survey suggests graduate teaching assistants wanted more! “I wish could attend more than one choice from Breakout Sessions A & B” said one participant and “Each topic should have its own specific program” said another. The good news is the orientation is just the start. Graduate teaching assistants can attend many of the monthly events offered by the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center. In the 2016-2017 academic year over 620 Graduate Teaching Assistant attended the center’s programs. To find out more about TA workshops, look for our monthly calendar of programs. All TAs receive the schedule via their NIU student email.

 

Tips for New Graduate Teaching Assistants from Your Experienced Peers

head with light bulb IdeaEach fall, the Teaching Assistant Orientation is offered to new and returning teaching assistants to learn more about their role as a TA and the support services at Northern Illinois University. The Teaching Across the Disciplines panel of experienced teaching assistants is always one of the most popular sessions at the orientation. This year, we asked the panel members, who are experienced TAs, to share some best practices and practical tips of being a graduate teaching assistant.

Q: How do you balance your school work with your teaching assistantship?

Kelsey Williams, English, GTA for 8 semesters: “I know of two common approaches to this.The first is to handle your work as a student and your work as a teaching assistant separately. That could mean designating Friday as your day to get your own homework done, Saturday as your day to get your teaching duties taken care of, and Sunday as your day of rest because, hey, you’ve earned it. The benefit of this approach is that you can set your brain in “student mode” one day and “teacher mode” the next, rather than doing mental gymnastics by switching between the two. It can also allow you to cross whole items off your to-do list. This is my preferred strategy and it has served me well, even unto the third year of my Ph.D.

The second strategy is to do a little bit of student work, then switch to a little bit of TA work, then switch back to student work, and so on into infinity. The benefit of this approach is that you can slowly make progress on your to-do list without feeling overwhelmed or having to force yourself to focus on a single task for too long. You need to take care of yourself as a person as well. The best way to balance student work and TA work is to balance all of that equally with having a life outside of being a student and a TA.”

Q: How do you prepare for class?

Jeanine Clark Bremer, Literacy and Elementary Education, GTA for 6 semesters: “I’m old school – I bought into the notion to read the top five scholars on each topic you will cover, for every topic you will cover all semester long. In a perfect setting, where you know what you will be teaching well in advance, this works. In a minimally perfect situation, you have probably already read a lot of the scholars due to your graduate level work. Looking at this from the daily perspective of prepping for class, two things come to mind. First, read along with your students. You will be surprised at how many more mistakes you will catch that they are making during a discussion, if you have reread the material for the day it was assigned. Concurrently reading with them also helps you better ascertain who is reading ahead and who is falling behind. Second, it may sound silly, but take a few minutes and really try to think through possible questions you might receive on a day’s topic. You may not come up with everything, because their schema is different than your own, but mentally working through options will make you more agile when they throw questions at you that you were not expecting.”

Q: What is the one thing you learned about being a teaching assistant during your first semester that you didn’t know before?

Amanda Schlink, Family, Consumer, and Nutrition Sciences, GTA for 4 semesters: “The one thing that I learned about being a teaching assistant was how much the students can rely on you. In my first semester, I was the TA instructor for a food preparation lab, where the lab was a separate course from the lecture. Therefore, I was responsible for the instruction, including lecturing, preparation of ingredients, grading, exams and everything in between. Going into the first semester, I had never had a course like this during my undergrad and didn’t know that a TA could essentially teach a separate lab, where the grade is completely independent from the lecture course. However, I found that I gained respect from my students early on by acting as the authority figure in the lab, speaking from experience when discussing course topics and showing care about their academic success in my course. This reliance carried on throughout the semester and eventually led to trust that if something didn’t work out, everything was going to be okay.”

 

Tips for Grading Student Work

Amanda Schlink:

  • Be consistent from start to finish, especially with essays, projects or any assignments that do not have a concrete rubric.
  • Avoid grading late at night, as you are more likely to miss errors. I recommend giving all graded assignments a second look over to ensure the grades given are indeed correct.
  • Use the rubrics for assignments if possible. In addition, always be able to justify the grades that are given.
  • For any exams that require a Scantron, double check that the answer key is correct before the Scantrons are submitted for grading.

Tips for Handling Difficult Situations

Amanda Schlink:

  • Always stay professional, especially through email and conversations that occur in person.
  • If possible, discuss difficult situations in private, away from other students.
  • Be observant of your tone and body language, as students can sometimes misinterpret signals.
  • Always remain neutral and do not take sides.
  • Never be afraid to go to your supervisor or faculty supervisor for advice if a situation requires additional assistance.

Jeanine Clark Bremer:

  • Breathe – no matter what, you are in charge and the student will respond to your action/reaction.
  • Listen with an open mind. Really listen to what they are saying so you understand the many facets of the situation.
  • Ask questions in a manner that is not accusatory and is fact-seeking.
  • Be straightforward and honest. Be honest about the actions you have to take (if any).

Tips for Preparing for Class/Lab/Clinical

Amanda Schlink:

  • Always come prepared (unless circumstances arise that are out of your control)
  • Students notice when you are not prepared and will comment on it, even if you think they won’t.
  • Allow more time to prepare than what you think. As the semester progresses, you will likely become more efficient and therefore will spend less time preparing.

Thank you to the experienced teaching assistants that provided these valuable suggestions on how to develop in the role of teaching assistant at NIU.

Beyond the Teaching Assistant Orientation

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photo of participants attending the NIU Teaching Assistant Orientation

Over 220 Graduate Teaching Assistants, presenters, and staff attended the 2016 Teaching Assistant Orientation on August 16, 2016 in the Holmes Student Center. The Teaching Assistant Orientation is offered to new and returning teaching assistants each year to learn more about their role as a TA and the support services at Northern Illinois University. However, this isn’t the only opportunity for TAs to develop their teaching skills. Teaching assistants can also attend other Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center programs throughout the year. In 2015-2016, teaching assistants accounted for 40% of program attendance, which equates to almost 600 registrations.

To find out more about TA workshops, look for our monthly calendar of programs. All TAs receive the schedule via their NIU student email.

The TA Orientation is offered each year through the collaborative efforts of the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center, the Graduate School, and other departments and support units. The annual event helps graduate teaching assistants develop their teaching skills and introduces them to university resources that will support their work. The TA Orientation is always well attended and attendees consistently agree that this event will benefit their students. Although the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center does not require new TAs to attend the orientation, 29 unique academic departments required their TAs to attend. Over 85% of the participants agreed that their objectives for attending the orientation were met.

If you were unable to attend this year’s TA Orientation, you can review the presentations and handouts online.

Finally, the Teaching Across the Disciplines panel of experienced teaching assistants is always popular. We asked our recognized experienced TAs to share more about their role as a teaching assistant with some strategies and tips. For more advice go to: Tips for New Graduate Teaching Assistants from Your Experienced Peers

 

Results of the 2015 Teaching Assistant Campus-wide Survey

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hands typing on laptopDuring the spring 2015 semester, the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center conducted a survey of all Teaching Assistants at NIU. We send a similar survey every four years to teaching assistants, and survey all faculty and instructors every four years on an alternating schedule (so that we get significant feedback from campus every two years).

This year, 135 teaching assistants responded to the survey. Over 65% of respondents had attended our programs, and nearly 87% found the programs to be applicable to their teaching. Over 75% felt that participation in our programs was beneficial to students. While the majority of respondents knew about the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center and the Teaching with Blackboard websites and found them to be helpful, many did not know that we have a library of Program Archives, which are videos of recorded workshops. Check them out – there are hundreds of workshop recordings that you can access anytime, anywhere.

Many teaching assistants have received or are pursuing the Graduate Teaching Certificate offered by the Center. However, 51% have never heard of it. The Graduate Teaching Certificate is a recognition of your commitment to developing your teaching skill, and can be a valuable asset if you are pursuing a faculty position after graduation. Learn more about the Graduate Teaching Certificate.

Overall, we’d like to thank all of the teaching assistants who responded to our survey. The information you provided was very valuable and we will use it to improve our teaching assistant programming and resources.

New Online Application for Graduate Teaching Certificate

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graduate teaching certificate It has never been easier to apply for the Faculty Development & Instructional Design Center Graduate Teaching Certificate! The application form is now available online at facdev.niu.edu/tacertapp

The certificate recognizes the participation of graduate teaching assistants (GA/RA/TAs) in the development programs offered by the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center. The certificate acknowledges these individuals’ commitment to effective teaching and can enhance their academic credentials. To qualify for this recognition, a graduate teaching assistant must have attended the full-day TA Orientation and at least five (5) programs of shorter duration offered by Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center.

NIU graduate teaching assistants are encouraged to apply for the certificate online at facdev.niu.edu/tacertapp. Once completed applications are received and processed, certificates are sent to the teaching assistants’ department to acknowledge their commitment to effective teaching and present the certificates to them. If TAs need a few more workshops to qualify for the certificate, they are encouraged to check the current schedule of TA programs on the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center website.

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