GW steps up teacher training

First-year Ph.D. student Laura Reyes studies human brain evolution, but she also wants to learn how to shape students’ minds with the right teaching tactics.

Starting this fall, the University will offer its 500 graduate teaching assistants, many of whom will seek careers as professors, a chance to pick up classroom tips through a new faculty program.

While the University runs an orientation and online seminar for graduate teaching assistants on topics like how to set curricula and manage students with disabilities, it does not help students learn teaching methodologies like how to improve group work or teach large courses.

“Going into academia is a very strange thing,” Reyes, who is in the hominid paleobiology program, said. “We’re expected to teach, but as it stands now, we’re not really training how to teach. We just learn it over time or through experience.”

The Office of the Provost will offer between $20,000 and $25,000 to the future faculty program, Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning Stephen Ehrmann said, which could go toward paying graduate teaching assistants extra to participate in the training program.

The immediate aim of the program is to develop graduate teaching assistants’ classroom abilities, but a certificate and skills from the program may also help in landing jobs as professors at other universities, said Rahul Simha, a computer science professor who leads a faculty group looking to single out the best teaching practices for GW faculty.

The program will target an initial group of about 20 graduate teaching assistants looking to improve their techniques for leading undergraduate students in laboratory and discussion sections. Sessions will likely occur about 10 times a semester and may not be taken for credit.

The Teaching and Learning Collaborative, a 19-person advisory board that started last fall as a part of Ehrmann’s Office of Teaching and Learning, pitched the graduate training program and will run it as a signature piece of its agenda.

“There are challenges that vary by discipline. In some departments, [graduate teaching assistants] are thrown in the deep end of the pool,” Simha, who leads the collaborative’s faculty advisory board, said.

As laptops distract students inside the classroom and research commitments take up more faculty time outside the classroom, the collaborative has looked to promote innovation in instruction, he said.

For graduate teaching assistants, that means learning the basics of delivering a successful lecture, Simha said.

Roxana Leontie, who is in her second year of a Ph.D. program in computer science, said she has tried to learn teaching skills by watching the best professors in her department, but was frustrated in the first computing course she taught last fall because she was not accustomed to teaching, and the subject was not in her area of expertise.

“I can tell you my first time teaching my first semester was really tough, because the orientation we had was not enough to prepare for what we need to do,” Leontie said. “I’m looking forward to the new program, and I think the departments should invest a little more time for preparing us for a teaching career.”

The University has tried to relay the same teaching tactics over the past three years to GW’s about 100 junior faculty – assistant professors hired within the last five years. The Teaching and Learning Collaborative took over that training this year.

The faculty learning community for junior faculty would be a model for the future teaching program, Simha said.

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