Teacher Appreciation Week: Top teaching assistants demonstrate teaching strategies

environmental studies field trip

Following class discussion and team activities on designing “green communities,” Amanda Desormeaux drove the class in a UF van to such a community in town and led a tour. The students gained a number of insights on how the reality of a “green community” can be similar or different from the original design concepts.

Teacher Appreciation Week reminds us to think about the many wonderful teachers we’ve had and how they have contributed to our academic and personal development.

I’m also thinking of what it takes to be one of those memorable teachers. As a member of the University of Florida’s Graduate Student Teacher Awards Committee, I have the opportunity each semester to watch some of UF’s best teaching assistants teach and then to be part of the committee process to select the top 20 TAs. The 2017 winners were recently announced.

Observing the teaching assistants and reviewing their nomination packets reinforces qualities that make outstanding teachers. Let me share two of those qualities.

Planned instruction

A key to being an outstanding teacher is planning – both planning for individual class sessions and creating the big plan for the entire course. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe analyze the strategies of instructional design in “Understanding by Design” (2005).

That’s not to say that an on-the-moment activity can’t be included in a class. You can develop a teaching idea for that day’s class as you drive or walk to school. A question or comment from a student in class can lead to you redirecting your approach for that day’s class. But overall, you need to have planned and coordinated class sessions that work toward specific student accomplishments.

Improv Acting class - University of Florida

Ernest Briggs leads a class critique of a team’s improv. Briggs divided the students into teams after he had worked with them for several weeks. The teams work together on weekly improv activities, building toward a final performance.

When I review the teaching packages of the teaching assistants nominated for the teaching award, their planning is evident in their syllabi.

The syllabus lets students know their expectations for the semester – Student Learning Outcomes. The syllabus narrative and timeline present a sequence of assignments and learning activities that enable students to accomplish those SLOs.

Many courses are designed for students to create a portfolio of their work – a series of writing projects, the completion of multiple lab experiments and reports, or a collection of created artwork. Other courses have students working throughout the course toward a final project, such as a group presentation, an insect collection, or a major research paper.

Courses that include that kind of student-produced work help students recognize their progress (or lack of adequate progress) and recognize the importance of building on skills, establishing and meeting deadlines, and recognizing standards in the discipline.

And when I observe these top TAs teaching, their planning is evident. The class session has a specific mission. The instructor makes sure the students see how this day’s class connects within the framework of the overall course and specific assignments. They start class on time and utilize their class time. They move smoothly from one activity or topic to the next. Their pacing and use of student engagement makes sure that their students are moving with them.

Enthusiasm for the subject and their students

capturing insects in entomology class

Michael Vickers helps a student identify the insect she caught during the lab portion of class. The final project in the entomology class was capturing, labeling and displaying a collection of specific insects.

Ken Bain’s “What the Best College Teachers Do” (2004) and “What the Best College Students Do” (2012) reinforce the power of a teacher’s enthusiasm both for the subject matter content and for the students. The teacher’s enthusiasm is a powerful motivator for students – from choosing a major or profession to being more confident about themselves and their potential.

Those top TAs convey that two-part enthusiasm. They are excited about the importance of that day’s class and about the overall course. The students can tell that enthusiasm and get caught up in it themselves. That’s especially important for required courses, where students often start a course with low interest in the subject.

Those top TAs include examples that they think students will connect with – whether YouTube video clips, readings or case studies. They exude energy during class. They are available before or after class to talk with students and promote the opportunity for students to talk with them during office hours or via email or messaging through the course management system.

When I talk with the TAs, they are positive and excited about the course and their students – the progress the students are making, activities they are using in the course, the questions the students are asking, the level of interaction of the students during class, etc. They also talk about how they have improved the course or their own teaching and personal goals they have for the next time they teach the course or in their teaching in general.

Seeing these top teaching assistants in action makes me hopeful about the continued power of higher education as these graduate students launch their teaching careers. Also, those observations are good reminders to those of us who are veteran teachers of the fundamentals of excellent teaching.

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