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Bringing Experience to the Classroom
Graduate students often are called upon to teach undergraduates. But, many times, they have no prior teaching experience. A UA program offers that training.
Watching a video recording of himself teaching, University of Arizona graduate student Dee Hill Zuganelli said he learned a lot about his classroom presence and how he engaged his students.
But in that process, which was part of his training in the UA's Graduate Certificate in College Teaching Program, Hill Zuganelli said he came to understand that his presence shared an importance with how classes are structured and how students are engaged – and it was training he likely would not have been able to have otherwise.
Hill Zuganelli represents the growing number of graduate and post-doctoral students called to teach at higher education institutions across the nation. And while such students are well-vested in their field-specific research, they too often have little or no experience actually teaching other students.
A group of UA staff and faculty members took hold of this problem years ago, launching what would come to be known as the Graduate Certificate in College Teaching Program. While some departments offer courses in teaching, many do not.
"Graduate students occupy this weird space within universities. We have one foot in the student world and we also are involved in these dialogues in professional training that allow our teaching passions to come out," said Hill Zuganelli, who completed the UA program last year and continues teaching.
"In the program, I really developed an appreciation for all that goes into teaching," he said.
The evolution of a program
In 2000, Kyla Macario began working on what would evolve into the UA teaching program. Last year, the program gained its certificate status under the UA Graduate College. Today, students who successfully complete the program also receive a permanent stamp on their University transcripts.
"So many teaching assistants come into teaching with no experience and no support, but the program gives them more weight," said Macario, a professor of practice for the UA Office of Instruction and Assessment, or OIA. "We believe in lifelong learning and solid pedagogy."
The program began with eight students. All told, 285 UA students have been trained, Macario said.
In the program, students take three courses for a total of 10 units, learning the basics – how to draft a syllabus, how to produce a lesson plan, how to produce quizzes and exams and how to formally and informally assess learning, among other things.
Also, more departments have begun offering elective courses that contribute to the credit requirement for the program.
In the UA's chemistry and biochemistry department, Steve Brown runs the department's freshman laboratory program.
About 3,000 students every semester take courses through the laboratory program, requiring tremendous involvement from graduate teaching assistants, Brown said. But few of those graduate students will move into teaching positions after they graduate, he said.
"Early in my career, I discovered that you cannot teach an incoming graduate student everything in a week or two that they need to know about being a teacher," said Brown, who offers a course he specifically designed for the teaching assistants and also supports the UA's certificate program.
"Most will go into industry. But what we're trying to do is to get these people who are novice teachers to think about the teaching they are doing, and to also grow," Brown said, adding that he, too, emphasizes a learner-centered approach.
In fact, learner-centered teaching practices and evidence-based approaches to instruction are foundational points in the certificate program. This is important. It's the difference between a strict, top-down approach to lecturing and engaging students in their own learning processes through conversations and active participation and projects.
"Everyone's natural tendency is to lecture. But that's only one type of teaching," Brown said. "When you are teaching in a learner-centered environment, you can't anticipate everything that is going to happen. So you have to be able to react to whatever is going on in the classroom and go wherever it may be. It takes willingness to go to the unknown."
Brown noted that the more graduate students were involved in this type of training, the fewer problems they experienced in the laboratory and classroom.
Benefits for the classroom and beyond
Four main areas are emphasized in the program: evidence-based theory, putting theory to practice, taking time for reflection on one's teaching and opportunities for direct feedback.
"And one of the greatest strengths of the program, in addition to the theory and skills building, is that there are people in different fields. We are helping to build communities of practice," said Erin Dokter, a UA associate professor of practice with OIA who co-teaches the learner-centered teaching course and supervises students, among other things, in the certificate program.
In addition to coursework, students also participate in an instructional practicum during which they learn about their own teaching styles and develop a portfolio.
"We get to see such incredible examples of quality teaching on campus; we get to see it every day," Dokter said. "And it's not just the students in the program. There are great examples of teaching across campus, and getting to see the extra support of graduate teaching assistance is a real privilege."
This process aids in the type of growth students are able to carry with them, Macario said.
"When they go for job interviews they come across as very confident – and they are," Macario said, adding that students who have participated in the program have gone on to land jobs in Iran, Sweden, Japan and across the U.S., among other locations.
Alyssa Alger took interest in the program after one of her peers in the UA School of Dance made the suggestion.
And while her instruction is far from traditional, given the setting and student population, Alger said the program has nonetheless greatly shaped her understanding of how students learn.
"The program provides you with so many tools to help you develop as not just an instructor, but a teacher, an educator, a mentor and a role model," said Alger, a second year student in the dance program.
Most beneficial to Alger is learning how to navigate her identity as a young instructor in her work with students not far from her age bracket.
"Being so close in age to my students, it gets a little confusing for me how to display myself as instructor and role model to students who are essentially my peers," Alger said.
"The program helps set boundaries between yourself as an educator and your students while still maintaining a level of closeness, respect and openness for your students," she added. "The program really encourages positivity and positive learning and teaches you how to maximize the amount of learning your students process and retain."
Like Alger, Hill Zuganelli said he has come to understand that strong teaching is marked by true classroom engagement.
"Even if you have the greatest lesson plan or assignment, if you can't connect with your students, it doesn't matter. So I'm always asking, 'How do I make my material as interesting as that students' text message?' It has to be relatable," he said.
"A good teacher has to show their students that they care about the entire teaching process," Hill Zuganelli said. "When you love what you do – even when you goof up – I think students see that, and I think you have to let them see it."