“From the get-go, don’t try to accomplish 100% in the classroom. Things will never work out that way, because there will always be something that you feel you could have done better. For starters, if you can accomplish even 50% of what you intended to do, you can consider that a job well done.”
This was the encouraging advice given to me by my supervising instructor, Kubo Sensei, which started off my first quarter of teaching second-year Japanese. It may sound strange, even counterproductive, to consider “50%” as enough, but this was Kubo Sensei’s way of telling me that there is no reason to be hard on myself for mistakes, when even experienced instructors continuously seek improvement. This advice saved me countless times throughout the quarter – for example, during the second week of instruction when I failed to present all the assigned material in one of my four sections; or, on several occasions when I explained a concept in class, only to realize later that there was a much better way of explaining things.
Probably my most rewarding experience from this quarter was when I realized, in early December, that my students were looking to me as an “instructor,” not as an inexperienced “teaching assistant.” I bring this up because I remember my own days as an undergraduate being extremely critical of my TAs – sometimes even refraining from asking them questions because I felt that they would not be able to provide real answers. As this quarter progressed, I found that more and more of my students were genuinely seeking answers from me. When I knew an answer, I tried to provide my best response; and when I was unsure of myself, I honestly admitted that I didn’t know. The latter didn’t discourage my students from asking questions one bit, and I’ve come to believe that honesty is essential to establishing a trusting relationship with students.
I struggled to find some topics of discussion which would be helpful for future TAs reading this blog. Below I have listed just a few of my concerns from the past quarter.
For past TAs reading this post, I would much appreciate any additional suggestions or comments.
I have heard numerous opinions regarding team-teaching – both positive and negative. In many departments other than EALC, TAs are given their own section to teach once a day, five times a week. This allows TAs to completely design their own section material, and to devote their time to a maximum of 8-10 students per quarter.
Japanese language TAs are assigned at least three (and at most four) sections to teach on a specific day (usually every Friday), and teach alongside one or two more instructors who are responsible for sections on the other days of the week. A framework for teaching (syllabus, powerpoint slides) is provided, so that TAs spend less time trying to construct new course material, and more time adjusting to teaching lots of students, teaching different course content, and assimilating a real instructor’s teaching methods. Since each TA day is spent teaching the same lesson material three or four times, there are just as many “chances” to improve one’s instruction. But probably most importantly, TAs must pick up from the main instructor’s teaching from Thursday, and then successfully transition students into their Monday sections.
Does team-teaching put TAs at a disadvantage? From what I have experienced so far, my answer is no. Being in charge of three to four sections has exposed me to a wide range of proficiency levels, something which I could not have known from teaching only one section. Contrary to popular belief, it IS possible to connect with students (even with a grand total of more than 35), and given encouragement a student or two from each of my sections has visited my office hours. Having to teach alongside (in my case) two Japanese instructors has given me more encouragement to “measure up,” so that my Friday sections will smoothly transition into Monday’s, and so that my mistakes will not inconvenience my students or fellow instructors. And speaking honestly, constructing daily course material is impossible when you are a second-year graduate student having to take two or three courses per term in addition to TAing. If given the option to (a) be an independent TA, but struggle with producing new course content; or (b) be part of a team and learn the ropes of teaching from a mentor while using preexisting course content, I would opt for (b).
To give future TAs an idea of the expected weekly workload – it really varies each quarter, depending on the number of instructors who are teaching and the course enrollment. If there are two TAs assigned to one language course, grading responsibilities will obviously be halved. Also, since many Japanese language students study abroad in Kyoto during spring quarter, course enrollment will be less and hence teaching responsibilities will be lighter later in the academic year.
This past quarter my weekly responsibilities were to:
- hold one weekly office hour (Tuesday afternoon)
- prepare teaching slides (Wednesday night)
- have a weekly meeting with Kubo Sensei (Thursday morning)
- teach four sections (all of Friday, 10am – 3pm)
- grade online homework (usually every other weekend on Coursework).
Since there were two other instructors teaching this quarter (Kubo, Nakamura), my grading responsibilities were very light. However this may change sometime during the next two quarters.
When I received my course evaluations from this quarter, I was surprised to receive only two section’s worth of student evaluations (even though I had technically taught in four). I asked Kubo Sensei about this, and was informed that the number of section evaluations a TA receives depends on the number of course instructors teaching in the given quarter. If only two instructors (main and TA) are teaching, it is possible for the TA to receive evaluations for all sections. But because second-year Japanese this fall quarter was taught by Kubo Sensei, Nakamura Sensei, and myself, sections assignments (and hence section evaluations) were split among three instructors.
An independent TA teaching one section five times a week will receive only one section’s work of student evaluations. However, these evaluation results will reliably reflect the TA’s own teaching, because students will not compare the TA’s teaching to another instructor’s. This is not the case in team-taught Japanese language, where students will inevitably compare the TA’s teaching with that of one or more instructors. Hence, there is some added pressure on Japanese language TAs to show satisfactory performance in teaching. I leave it to the reader to take this as a disadvantage of team-teaching, or as impetus for working harder to improve language instruction.