Earlier this fall, I returned to North Carolina looking forward to starting a new semester. This would mean a set weekly schedule, filled with coursework, data analysis, and teaching responsibilities. I was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed second year graduate student who couldn't wait to get into the classroom.
After week one, I was completely overwhelmed and my energetic spirit soon became wearied. I was a teaching assistant* for a course called molecular biology. You might be thinking, "Shouldn't a biologist be able to assist in any introductory biology course?" If you are thinking that, you certainly have a valid point. I took all of the introductory biology courses during my undergraduate career and participated in a few molecular biology workshops. I should be able to teach the lab sections of this course. I should be able to recall the material. I should be able to learn new concepts quickly. Teaching should be easy. I had spent so much time learning from teachers, so I should be able to handle this.
The first few months were exhausintg. I spent almost forty hours a week preparing for class, grading, attending meetings and lectures, and teaching my two lab sections. I felt that I was never prepared during help desk, even though I spent hours with my head in the book and watching videos on Kahn Academy. How was I supposed to help my students, who were my main priority, when I felt overwhelmed?
Well, when the going got tough, it was time to get creative. During the lab section, I was not always able to answer their questions from the morning's lecture, because I typically needed the evening to listen to the recording once more. I decided that I would have students submit questions on a notecard to me to receive their full participation score for the lab. This wold give me time to look up the answer, provide extra resources, and send an email out to my lab section with all of the questions asked. I think it helped the students to have the answer to their question in writing, and it benefited me by forcing me to spend time carefully researching their extremely thoughtful questions.
I can't speak highly enough of the undergraduate student body who took this course. The students worked very hard to master the lecture and lab material. They also were incredibly patient with me and were not afraid to let me know when they needed more clarification on a particular topic. I think the best approach to forming relationships with the class is to be honest. The students knew that this was my first time as a TA, and they were understanding when I asked for time to look up an answer to their questions. As I reflect on the last semester, the two most helpful pieces of advice from faculty and students who had taught previously were, (1) always be honest with students about what you do and do not know, (2) use jokes often (the title of this blog post was voted class favorite).
In the future, I will be teaching courses more closely related to my field (ecology, yay). At the beginning of the year, I never thought I would enjoy this molecular biology course. In fact, before this class, I loathed the idea of picking up a pipette ever again, but I ended up using them on a weekly basis. After learning the material for this course, I realize that I just love science and biology. I think glycolysis, DNA sequencing, and VDJ recombination are the coolest topics ever. In addition to learning the science, the students in the course taught me far more than I taught them. They taught me that my excitement for science comes from teaching, and that academia doesn't exist without the students, which sometimes is easy to forget spending so much time in the lab/field.
* A teaching assistant usually helps course lecturers by running lab sections and recitations.
The course was structured in a way that allowed the students to learn the lecture material alongside the lab material. In the lab, we started a semester-long project that would result in one drawing. I have pictured here a few from my class. Can you imagine, it took students nine weeks to be able to draw this? In addition to this drawing, they all sat down with me one-on-one at the end of the semester to explain their projects to me. What a feeling. Hearing them all explain what they did this semester made me feel that I hadn't confused them completely, and most of them really enjoyed the lab course.