Graduate Teaching Assistant
Starting my role as a Graduate Teaching Assistant last year, I admit that I was apprehensive about my ability to do the job well. Aside from a voluntary stint teaching teenagers at a summer camp in 2000, I had very little classroom experience, and as my first seminar approached, I sought the advice of more seasoned colleagues: “What if I get asked difficult questions?” I babbled, convinced every fresher would outsmart me on the nuances of the Royal Prerogative. I was assured that this would not be the case.
My anticipation was of course worse than the reality, and it transpired that my colleagues were right – I knew enough about the law to adequately deal with the handful of questions put to me each week. Inevitably, I was blindsided by the things I hadn’t considered and looking back, I can see what a huge learning curve I was actually embarking on. Now, during my second year of teaching, I will no doubt encounter another multitude of unexpected lessons, but I am taking these points from my inaugural year:
Have the confidence to do things differently – My inexperience-fuelled concerns had me adhering to the seminar guidelines as if I were welded to them – any deviation from the programme risked me being unveiled as an imposter. This belief was only tested by the students themselves going off-piste during one seminar and getting thoroughly engaged in debate. Over time, it became obvious which activities encouraged the most interest and which tactics blew tumbleweed across the room. I also got to know the students better, which meant I was more relaxed in their company and able to introduce some fun into otherwise dry topics. This isn’t to say that the same strategies will work with every group, but each seminar improved my faith in my own judgment.
Accept that you will make mistakes – Another fear was standing before a sea of silent faces, desperate for any interaction from them. As already mentioned, these moments did occur, and they were excruciating. I realised that my approach was not always conducive to getting shy teenagers to speak up in front of peers they barely knew but amazingly, the world didn’t end because of my misjudgement. I also imparted incorrect information on several occasions, one of which I felt compelled to rectify via a message on the module webpage. The expected bellows of “Sack this incompetent fool” never materialised and the students were surprisingly forgiving… or perhaps I had just made far more of it than was necessary.
Some students will get under your skin – University life has changed a lot since my undergraduate years. We have had a recession, tuition fees have rocketed, and there’s the small matter of Brexit, all of which have contributed to a more anxious and less hopeful student population, graduating with a burden of debt that previous generations never imagined. For many, this means an overwhelming pressure to achieve well and justify the cost; a pressure that intensifies as graduation draws closer and the expense of postgraduate education or battling with a competitive job market lurk on the horizon like Scylla and Charybdis. I received a multitude of panicked emails during the assessment period, some of which exposed heartbreaking levels of distress and fear. There is no easy way to immunise yourself against something which is ultimately beyond your control, but I will certainly be discussing assessments in a way that aims to manage anxieties this time around.
I actually really enjoy teaching – The most important and valuable takeaway from the entire year was the buzz of being part of the learning process. When seminars went well, I left the classroom on a high, which boosted my confidence the following week. Having a lot of enthusiasm for the topic helps, and while I am sure my excitement over the difference between left and right wing politics was a total mystery to them, it did pique their curiosity enough to get them involved. I also met some incredible people in the classroom, from backgrounds very different to my own. Getting to know my students and their motivation for studying law only added to my enjoyment of teaching. There were some standout individuals whose commitment and imagination were overwhelming – these are the students you nudge to fulfil their potential, especially when you know what it’s taken them just to get to university in the first place.
It feels like a cliché to say that I learned more than the students last year, but there is usually truth to these axioms. I was also totally unprepared for those lessons. I will be going into the next seminar a little wiser, a little tougher and a lot more open to the next year of challenges.