Misadventures in TA’ing

One of the things I most looked forward to when I found out I was going to grad school was teaching. After spending my last semester of undergrad at UVA teaching my own self-designed course, I was eager to get back to the front of a classroom, maybe breaking down some literature with first year students or offering writing support during office hours.

But my dream situation got put on hold. There were several factors: I was now at a relatively small(ish) liberal arts university with overall tiny class sizes, which reduced the need for Teaching Assistants (TA’s). While we were guaranteed to teach at some point, if we wanted, TA-ships were not as easy to come by as I had originally imagined in this setting. Then there was the unspoken understanding that often times, first year students weren’t always placed in TA-ships. In terms of the content I wanted to focus on in the classroom, my university didn’t have graduate programs in English or Africana Studies; so in addition to the small class sizes, I wouldn’t really have an opportunity to TA where my heart was (unless, of course, I managed to snag a course cross-listed with English, which were few and far between).

So I pouted, but in spite of all of that, the prospect of TA-ing still appealed to me. I was placed in a programmatic graduate assistantship my first year with the Omohundro Institute; then with the Lemon Project, which I stayed with for my third year as well, much to my surprise. I loved working for the Lemon Project, but my desire to teach was flaring up, as well as my concern that it was getting to be so late in my graduate career and I hadn’t had any formal teaching experience, aside from leading workshops with Lemon and Course Instructing for Keio.

By the time I actually got a TA assignment, I was headed into my fourth year, almost formally dissertating. With only the prospectus standing in my way, I had moved past wanting to TA, and was ready to teach my own course, for which I had created a well-developed and, frankly, exciting, syllabus. However, due to an undocumented “policy,” I was denied my course and placed in a TAship that I had spent my first three years daydreaming about.

The circumstances under which I was placed in this position certainly marred my enthusiasm, but even so, as I gathered my thoughts about my teaching philosophy, and grand ideas for my first discussion sections, I was inflated by the prospect of being surrounded by gifted thinkers whom I got to help guide.

My cute little bubble of hope and optimism slowly deflated as I attended meetings and prepared for the start of the semester. Things were not shaking out as I had expected and, most importantly for me, I was already feeling like I couldn’t make my own decisions about how I wanted my classrooms to run, and by extension, feel. I was confined by more limitations than I had anticipated. The inability to put my own personal stamp on the two little classes I could call my own, and really express the fullest version of myself as an educator had me feeling claustrophobic and honestly, jaded.

There’s a part of me that understands this is part of the process. You learn to follow the rules before you can make your own.

But there’s another, much larger part of me, that has never particularly subscribed to this manner of thinking.

When the first day of discussion sections rolled around, I was even more nervous than I had reason to be. The professor for whom I was TA-ing would be there on the first day, mostly to talk about the syllabus, but also to lead the class in an exercise.

It felt strange, not being able to set the tone the way I wanted on the first day, and I felt myself shrinking, trying to take up the least amount of space possible. I left after my first set of classes, relieved that they were over, but also feeling an undeniable urge to cry. It had been so long since I had actively attempted to make myself small. I hated the feeling, but more than that, I hated myself for complying.

I wanted badly to get back in the classroom this week to restart, but due to the hurricane (which was more like a very windy drizzle), the school was closed and the students, and I, were off the hook.

I find myself deeply conflicted, but also very aware that it’s only been two weeks and I have plenty of time to turn this experience around. I’m conflicted because I finally get the opportunity to do what I’ve always wanted to do, but it seems like I keep stepping into one misadventure after the next. I love teaching– I always have. I very rarely played with my cousins on Sundays and holidays in the backroom at my grandparents’, preferring to read on the floor at my mother’s knees, but when I did, it was guaranteed to be a game of school, in which I got to be the teacher. It was an easy enough role to slide into, when most of the adults you knew intimately were educators. My mother was a fifth grade teacher, two of her sisters were teachers, her friends were teachers. I grew up drenched in questions of pedagogy and learning what was good practice based on which teaching policies my mother fumed about or praised while trading war stories with her sisters on the phone after school each night.

I knew from listening in on those conversations that teaching was not easy. It was a headache and it drove you crazy, but as I grew older, I realized that those conversations would not have been so heated if they were not fueled by a love of their job and their mission. My mom, her sisters, and their friends took educating seriously. Educating and education mattered. And I knew it was worth it every time she ran into a former student in the local Wal-Mart. She may not remember their name, but she remembered their face– a feat I’ve always found astounding given how much people change from when they’re ten to when they’re, say, twenty. The former students always want to stop my mom to show her they turned out okay; that they’re in college, or they have a family, or they have a great job.

Over my life, watching my mom and her sisters not only teach, but also care for students, has given me a model for how I want to approach teaching. Educating is as important to me as researching.

I think it’s important to remind myself of that from time to time, especially when I feel like my first experience TA-ing has been nothing but a series of misadventures. It may not have been the perfect timing for me, but who knows? Maybe there’s a student that will change my life. Maybe I’ll change one of theirs. Whatever comes next, I’m going to try to write as much of the story as I can.

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