December 2020

Lessons learned as a TA at TAMU teaser image
I taught my last class this week, and honestly, I almost cried when turning in the key to the classroom I’ve taught in these last two semesters. My program only requires graduate students to teach for the second and third semesters we are here, and for me, that third semester is coming to a close. Next week I proctor their final exam on Zoom, but after that, I probably won’t be teaching again.

So, I thought I would write a little bit about all the wonderful things my students have taught me over the last two semesters. Sure, I taught them about genetics, but I would argue they taught me more about their world, my abilities, and how to make the most out of even the worst situations.
  1. You’re not teaching yourself
We talked about this in TA training—how as a graduate student, you usually did your homework on time in undergrad, and you probably studied at least a little for every test, and you probably understood things reasonably quickly, even when you were presented with totally new information. However, think about how many people you knew in your undergrad program, versus how many people are in your graduate program. The ratio is huge, and therefore you will never teach a class of kids who will act the way you did, or think you did, in undergrad.

A lot of them have very different goals than you probably did! Some of them have their hearts set on a job after college, some on professional school, and some might not know yet (that’s OK too!). But it’s important not to expect your students to behave like you, because they are not you. And while graduate students notoriously hold themselves to very high standards, it’s important that, while you try to push your students to learn and better themselves, you’re not holding them to the same crazy high standards that you hold yourself to.
  1. When you are friends with your students, they’ll learn more
This sounds weird, but hear me out. If your students find you relatable enough that they ask you for help like a friend would, they’re more likely to retain the things you teach them. Something happens, I think, when people become “in charge” of another group of people that gives them a small type of superiority complex. And it’s true that you know more than they do. You’re closer to an expert on whatever subject you are teaching, which is why you are teaching the class. And you’ll probably be responsible for each of them in the sense of grading their quizzes, exams, and homework assignments.

However, that sense of power shouldn’t stop you from connecting with your students just because you know more than they do. It’s still important that they know you are a person they can talk to about things in the class they’re finding difficult, and no one wants to talk to a person who always acts high-and-mighty and smarter than everyone! They want to be able to talk to you about things they don’t get because, theoretically, TA’s should be less intimidating to talk to than professors. So, we have to keep it that way. Be friendlier with your students, rather than strict and cold, and I promise that teaching them will get easier (and their grades might get better, too!).
  1. Emails are weird, sometimes
I’ve gotten a handful of odd emails before from students, so this little section is really just to say: those strange emails are not a personal offense. I used to find it so funny when I would get emails from students I didn’t know very well that were totally informal—no “Hello Serina,” or “I hope you’re having a nice weekend, I just had a question.” Sometimes there wasn’t even a closing remark, like “best” or “regards.”
I figured out this goes along with being friendly—when your students trust you more like a friend than a teacher, they email you as if they are texting you. I think as time goes on, this will happen more and more as students enter college who have always had access to phones and texting. And this isn’t a bad thing! Again, it’s about them being comfortable enough with you to admit to a gap in knowledge they have, and then being receptive to an answer.
  1. It’s OK to have fun in class
This semester was a weird one to teach, and I taught a class in-person. I loved every second, but there were definitely days that you could tell everyone was generally a little antsy. We were doing an experiment with lots of wait steps. Usually the class would talk amongst themselves and everything would be fine, but with social distancing and masking protocols, the kids couldn’t really just chat with each other without speaking very loudly. Then the whole room would get loud.

Instead, on this day of long wait-steps, we all wound up having a paper airplane contest. I don’t even remember how it got started, but one kid made a paper airplane and tossed it, and suddenly the whole class was into it. It was easy because they weren’t throwing the airplanes at anything or anyone—they were just enjoying something together without violating social distancing protocols. At the end they cleaned everything up, put the airplanes away, and got back to work.

So, if you find you have a playful class, and you need to kill time, let them play! It never hurts, and especially during COVID-times, I think we could all use a good impromptu paper airplane contest or two.
  1. As a TA, you can actually make a big impact on the kids you teach….
This is cliché, but it’s true. I had no idea that teaching a class meant sometimes you put things in a way no one else has to these kids, and it can actually change the way they look at a subject. The feedback I’ve gotten from students about how much easier the content of the class was to understand when I taught it has been nothing short of heart-warming. It’s also so exciting when they ask you about what you do—what program you’re in, what your research is about, things like that! I think as graduate students we don’t always stop and think about how cool our work is, but students are great for reminding us of that. And you never know who might be inspired by your work or your personality to consider graduate school, or the subject you teach, as a part of their future.
  1. ….and they might just make a big impact on you.
I’ll try to hold back my tears writing this one. Coming into graduate school, I was confident that I could get a degree… and that was about it. And I only believed that because I had already done it, once. Otherwise, I’ve dealt with several bouts of imposter syndrome, not really knowing if I’m doing the right thing in research or in school, and just sort of questioning if I’m good enough to be here.

The people who have made me feel the most like I’m doing the right thing, and like I belong in graduate school, are my students. As much as you, their TA, support them in their learning, they support you too by telling you that you’re doing a good job, or by understanding your explanations, or sometimes just by opening their eyes a little wider when something you say clicks and suddenly, they know how to do their homework. It’s a feeling I don’t even have words to describe when something you say finally makes sense to a student who was struggling with a concept, and it’s that feeling that has made me more confident in myself as a graduate student. My time TA-ing and my students have taught me confidence in my abilities in a way I don’t think any other experience could have, and I’m so grateful for that.

- Serina Taluja

Serina is a doctoral student in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences.

About the Author

image of author Serina DeSalvio

Serina DeSalvio

Originally from Dallas, TX, Serina is a doctorate candidate at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, in the Interdisciplinary Genetics and Genomics Graduate Program. Her current research specializes in genetics, cytogenetics, botany, chromosome structure and dynamics, science communication, plant breeding, and biology. She enjoys painting, playing guitar, playing sand volleyball, ice skating, and taking care of her houseplants.

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