What I Have Learned From Being a Teaching Assistant

This semester I was the teaching assistant (TA) for a 50 student undergraduate class. I had been a TA for a small seminar graduate course, but this was my first undergraduate class. I was excited and nervous at the start of the semester, and four months later my enthusiasm is still strong. While it is hard managing 50 students, keeping up with the team and individual assignments, and being attentive to individual needs, it is also fulfilling. I think it also helps when you enjoy working along side the professor.

Looking back at the semester, these are my main takeaways that I will carry with me into future teaching.

Learn who your students are. Knowing who your students are and being able to call them by name build relationships. You may only know half, but they appreciate the effort.

Give as much feedback as possible. To me the grade is one piece, but knowing where to make improvements for the next assignment is what matters most.

Give students the benefit of the doubt. My nature is to see the best in people. Assume intentions are good until proven wrong.

Be consistent. If the policy is no assignment will be taken after the deadline, see that policy through otherwise you create a see of confusion.

Be available to students. Whether this is after class or by email, lets students know they can come to you with questions and concerns. Also while it was time consuming to attend every class, students could ask me questions and I could be involved in the learning process.

Don’t be surprised when life happens. Have policies in place to manage late assignments and absences. Remove the gray area and have policies that encourage professionalism.

Provide experiential learning when possible. Students enjoy getting out of the class and not being lectured. Field trips are not easy to plan, but can complement course objective and get students excited.

Set aside time to only focus on the class. I would often try to work on the class, my own classes, and my research all in the same afternoon. It did not work well. I felt I dabbled in all of it, but none of it got my full attention.





Managing Work Life Balance: My Experience

I was in the first semester of my Ph.D. when I told my advisor I was pregnant. I was nervous about sharing this information. Would I be supported or would my commitment to the Ph.D. be questioned? After sharing this new, I was beyond relieved to be showered with immense support and excitement. Not only was I supported by my advisor, but by my committee. A weight lifted off my shoulders knowing I was supported in the decision to start a family, while still pursuing my degree. I knew it would be challenging to manage both parenting and studies, but I felt it could be done due to the resources and support available to me. My experience demonstrates the positive impact of prioritizing programs and polices to support work life balance.

At Virginia Tech, the graduate school offers what is called the Work Life Grant. This grant is available to graduate students who have children or experience a family life event. Basically, the grant provides 6 weeks of paid leave. Half paid by the graduate school and half paid by the college. The funding is meant to replace duties while on leave or ensure your time away does not negatively impact the department. My advisor applied and we received the grant. For us this meant I could return with a lightened load after having my son. There was less pressure and time to be home. This made all the difference in my ability to feel balanced.

Another challenge facing new mothers is childcare. Finding affordable, yet high quality childcare is not easy. Spaces are limited in daycares and the cost can to high for those on a graduate stipend. My husband and I were fortunate to get a spot in a highly respected daycare. Our son is thriving and I can get my work done. It’s a win win. I know my experience is not necessarily the norm, but more women in graduate school should have the choice to pursue both personal and professional priorities like I did.

From Clinical Research Coordinator to Graduate Researcher

Before coming to graduate school, I worked in clinical research for a Sport Medicine group in Greenville, SC. I oversaw the research side helping to develop protocols, submit IRB (Institutional Review Board) applications, collect data, and prepare completed studies for publication. We completed studies that ranged from retrospective studies to randomized controlled trials. We would study the difference between joint replacement and outcomes of ACL repairs. As you would expect the IRB applications to enroll patients in studies that involved the type of knee replacement they received were pretty intensive. The risks were high, but so was the potential knowledge gained. If we could determine a new method of joint replacement that resulted in increased flexibility, less pain, and a quicker recovery, we could influence the standard of care for other patients. These experiences are what guided my interest to pursue a graduate education in research. Little did I know how valuable the experience of completing IRB applications and interviewing patients would be to my work today.

While I spent four years working with the IRB within the hospital system, this semester has been my first experience with a University IRB. The risk for my study is minimal, but the process still feels slightly unknown. My application will run through the Western IRB, which I did not use while in clinical research. I am optimist that the process will be smooth and I will have another skill to carry with me into a future research career.

Women in Higher Education

There are so many relevant topics in higher education and opportunities for change. The one that feels closest to me is the need to further empower women in academia. When you look at the statistics, more than half of PhDs are awarded to women, yet women make up less than 30% of tenured faculty. This highlights the challenge women face when entering a career in academia.

Women face issues with equal pay, getting hired, bias, being represented in their field, work life balance, and getting tenured. I am particularly interested in the work life balance of women in academic and how institutions support their academic and personal goals. The desire to have a partner, children, and family can be at odds with the expectations of assistant faculty. This is where higher education can continue to change and adapt to support women.

So far though in my graduate education, I have been quite fortune. I have had the opportunity to thrive professionally while also pursuing personal priorities. I am married and recently had a baby, all while being a full time student. My advisor, committee, and the graduate school have supported me. 20 years ago, this would not have been norm. It takes institutional level change in the form of programs and policies along with a cultural shift to embrace a true work life balance.

While I am still just in graduate school and challenges are still to come, I am not deterred. I feel confident that in 10 years even more progress will be made to empower women in academia.

Parents and Academics

I am still many years away from having to worry about homework and college admissions with my son. He is just one, but as a parent I think about his academic future. I think about what he will be like as student, what his interests will be, and what will drive him. I also think about how I can support and encourage him without being a “helicopter” parent. “Helicopter” parents are considers the ones that hover to closely, nag about homework, are obsessed with grades, and do not allow much independence. The culture to judge a student’s success based on grades and test scores certainly doesn’t help this scenario.

I hope the “helicopter” style will never be me, because I can’t imagine children being responsive to this environment. I am sure the intentions to be so deeply involved in your child’s schooling are good, but it seems to have unintended consequences. Some which include children feeling increased stress and pressure to achieve potentially unrealistic goals. I believe I can still be involved in so many aspects of my child’s education, without making it all about grades and college admission. I want to give space and independence and in return I hope I foster a more open conversation about school. I have plenty of time to figure out how I will do this, but ultimately I want my child to feel they are driving the ship, not me.



Learning Outside the Classroom

“Its here. It’s staying. Let’s make the most of it.” Steven Mintz, Online Learning 2.0

That is one way to look at online and hybrid education. Mintz sees online courses as something we might as well embrace and improve upon because it is not going anywhere anytime soon. More schools see online learning as way to reach a larger audience. This audience is interested in online or hybrid because they may not being able to attend classes in person, so it gives options.

The concern is that the quality of education will be less than that of face to face courses. Mintz sees it differently. He explains that online learning can often be more innovative and intentional as compared to the traditional classroom setting. He also describes online learning as an “act of love” which may mean students approach this style of learning with more passion and excitement.

So in a way, online and hybrid learning is an opportunity to push classes to the next level. It is a chance to reinvent main stream face-to-face courses to better align learning goals with personal experiences and make the learning environment feel more relevant. While all these things should also happen in the classroom, sometimes it takes a new format to get there.

Conferences: More Than a Line on Our CV

In February I attended an academic conference in Charleston, SC. I also presented a poster with phase one results from my dissertation. While this activity is expected on my CV and shows academic accomplishments, what I got out of the conference was so much more than a line on my CV.

My research is incredibly interdisciplinary. I come from a public health background, am completing my PhD in Environmental Design and Planning, and my research is about older adults, the built environment, and dog walking, so finding a conferences that is relevant can be challenging. This conference was spot on. It was about active living and bridged public health and urban planning. The opportunity to meet people who were also interested in a similar overlap of disciplines meant new relationships, future collaborators, and potential participates for my research. The conference did not disappoint. I made contacts with researchers who work I admired and learned how they were approaching challenges on active living. I think what is even more exciting is the prospect of attending the conference again, seeing familiar faces and building even more invaluable relationships.