The importance of teaching assistants

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McGill Reporter
April 28, 2005 - Volume 37 Number 15
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 37: 2004-2005 > April 28, 2005 > The importance of teaching assistants

Education special

The importance of teaching assistants

Caption follows
Award-winning teaching assistants Harry Lerner and Medrie Purdham.
Owen Egan

There are a lot of good Teaching Assistants out there, according to Alan Bale, a PhD student in the Department of Linguistics. Bale is in a position to know, as a recent recipient of the Faculty of Arts Graduate Student Teaching Awards. The awards serve to recognize the work and service of TAs, and also underline the fact that it is not only professors who are committed to good teaching at McGill.

So what makes a good TA? Approachability is a key element, especially as professors in a lecture setting are sometimes perceived as intimidating by undergraduate students. In contrast, the relative comfort of a smaller group and a friendly TA can provide a context in which it is easy for students to discuss and understand their course materials.

"A big part of it is that I make myself as accessible as possible," says Harry Lerner, an anthropology PhD, and another award-winning TA. "I'm not only available, but also approachable."

Bale concurs, and notes that even though he doesn't consider himself to have a naturally approachable personality, he has learned to make students feel it is easy to talk to him.

The two TAs also stress that enthusiasm is an essential component of being a good teacher. Bale notes that a teacher's excitement is infectious — and for some, that is the only aspect of teaching that comes without practice.

"Enthusiasm is the only thing that was there in the beginning," says Lerner. "I found [teaching] extremely difficult. It took a long time and a lot of hard work to be prepared to sit in front of a classroom."

For graduate students, a final component of being an effective teacher is bound up in their relationship with the professor for whom they work. Communication is a critical element, as TAs must strive to ensure that the material presented in the lecture hall informs their own discussions with students.

"It's easiest when you and the professor are on the same page," says Lerner, who notes that discussions with professors about teaching are an important part of succeeding as a TA.

The awards for graduate student teaching in the Faculty of Arts were selected by the Committee on Teaching, and were given on the basis of recipients' energy, skill and dedication. A total of three winners were chosen, and these included Lerner, Bale and Medrie Purdham in the Department of English, who was recognized for being "well-prepared" and "kind and approachable."

In the words of the chair, Rex Brynen, the committee was looking for "TAs who show lots of energy and commitment, innovation in their teaching and fairness. It's the same kinds of things you look for in any teacher."

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