In Class

June 6, 2019 at 3:08 pm

How to Take Advantage of Being a Student and an Instructor at the Same Time

By Leandro Arsenio Hernandez
Teaching Assistant in Modern Languages

Being a graduate student and overseeing a class during the same semester can sometimes be overwhelming. Have you ever thought about how these two roles are interconnected? Do not split yourself in two! Being an instructor can help you to become an even better student in your graduate classes. Let’s find out how to switch between roles and take advantage of it.

First Step: Remember that you also were a student in the past.

It’s possible that this is your first time teaching a class; or if you taught before, this could still be the first time you teach a given subject. We all know that being put in front of an audience can be a stressful experience, and many insecurities may inadvertently pop-up. However, it doesn’t have to be like that. After all, we all have been students at one point or another. That means you are familiar with how students think and feel. Try to remember how you and your classmates behaved in the past. What are some of the things you enjoyed the most in the classroom and the ones you disliked? Now try to switch sides and put yourself in the shoes of the instructor. How did your previous professors deal with a given situation or task? Was it a good approach? How would you do it differently? It’s important to focus not only on challenging situations but also on successful moments that you experienced as a student.

Second Step: Think about what type of graduate student you want to be.

It will happen that right after teaching a class you’ll find yourself taking a class, probably in the same classroom! Now you are a graduate student, which means professors are expecting you to give your very best no matter what. Now is also the time to take full advantage of having been to both sides of the table already and practice Confucius’ famous quote “Don’t do unto others what you don’t want done unto you.” Were you annoyed that your students didn’t read the syllabus you or your supervisor worked so hard for and where everything is thoughtfully explained? Then you should read your professor’s! Are your students asking for a deadline extension and for unjustified make-ups? Do not repeat the same excuses! Do your students fill your e-mail inbox with questions that they can probably look for the answer themselves by simply checking on Blackboard, the Syllabus, or even Google? You get the idea.

While all this might sound a bit obvious, being an instructor can sometimes lead to complaining a lot about how your students should behave, so much so that we sometimes forget we end up replicating the same behavior when sitting behind a desk. Being an instructor and a student is a privileged position that shows you, almost in real-time and just like a mirror, the mistakes we make and the ways we can make-up for them.

Third Step: Feedback goes both ways.

As you become more comfortable as an instructor and had a chance to correct (almost) all your flaws as a student, it’s time to push yourself a bit further and perhaps take thinks to the next level. Pay attention to how professors address their students in class and how they respond to students’ e-mails (I mean, your e-mails). Try to focus on the small details—both good and bad details. If a professor does not respond the way you expected, maybe that’s something you can work on when dealing with your own students. If you received good feedback on an assignment you submitted or gave an oral presentation that went really well and got complimented on, maybe try to replicate the same communication skills next time with your students.

Fourth Step: Become a Useful Link.

Finally, being a teaching assistant can at times feel like you are not really a “full-time” instructor nor a “full-time student,” since you are still learning how be both at the same time. However, being “in the middle” can actually become pretty useful to both sides since you already know what you classmates and professors need from each other. You can serve as a bridge between these two worlds, a liaison for positive change with your students. For example, the instructor or TA in you may be helpful to incoming students, students with disabilities, minorities, or simply anyone navigating the expectations of their new academic environment. You can definitely teach them a thing or two about what professors look for when submitting assignments or taking exams. You can help them while they help you to become the confident instructor you want to be.

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