What’s My Teaching Voice?

Sarah Deel’s article was profound. She detailed some of the minutia many GTAs tend to overlook when first starting their assignment. The article was relatable; it was reassuring to know we posted similar questions. However, I still don’t feel confident enough to fully define my teaching voice. I’ve been a GTA for a few semesters now, but my style evolves each semester. Perhaps I’ll be able to solidify my core teaching tenets by mid-semester, but for now, I’ll list two of what I think are my most prevalent strengths:

  1. Adjusting my teaching style. I like to administer frequent surveys to assess my strengths and weaknesses. Currently, I send an optional weekly survey to my students and have already received valuable feedback 4 weeks into the semester. Thankfully, students have been very specific about changes they’d like me to implement (such as speaking slower), so I haven’t had any real difficulty tweaking my style. I also plan to give a survey after the midterm.

I’ve found that students appreciate the surveys because they’re never required. The weekly surveys are optional, so students are free to give feedback whenever they feel is necessary. We clearly emphasize that we don’t use surveys as a participation grade or even to decide if we bump borderline grades at the end of the semester, so there’s no pressure for students not to participate. As one would expect, survey participation is high at the beginning of the semester and drops exponentially. I don’t find this problematic, as adjusting to the class in the beginning of the semester will set the tone for the rest of the semester.

2. Drawing the line between “friend” and “teacher.” I served as a Resident Advisor in my undergrad, so that gave me a wealth of experience toeing the fine line between being a friend and being a mentor. It’s certainly not easy and it’s not always fun, but it’s a necessary part of the job. Deel struggled with forcing humor, nonchalance, etc., and I definitely think that’s at the forefront of new teachers’ minds. Being young certainly helps, especially in the COVID era. As a fellow young adult, I follow more than my fair share of meme pages, watch too much Netflix/Hulu/Disney+, play an alarming amount of video games, and share the general sentiment felt by American teens in these times. Pop culture, therefore, is an afterthought to me, while an older GTA (or even full-time instructional staff) will lack the relatability crucial to forming a strong rapport with students. In addition, I’m from Northern Virginia, which is clearly an advantage at this university. I stayed in the same department for graduate school (Mechanical Engineering), so I’ve also found it incredibly worthwhile to discuss my experiences in the undergraduate program.

This segues nicely into discussing how the class I assist contextualizes this point. I’m a GTA for a 400-person introductory coding class for Mechanical Engineering sophomores. It’s the gateway class for the major, so there’s an abnormal pressure to this class since failing can tack on an extra semester or year. Obviously, a 400-person class presents nightmarish logistical challenges which everyone on the staff avoids like the current pandemic. We’ve implemented an incredibly strict “no late work, no extensions, no nothing” policy. Essentially, we release assignments at least 1.5 weeks before the deadline and put the onus of submission on them. The students who excel at time management/organization/coping with online learning breeze through and submit it within days, but that sadly only represents ~20% of the class. The remaining ~80% wait until 15 minutes before the deadline. When over 300 students all attempt to submit their HW, Canvas inevitably crashes. It’s essentially a toss-up to see whose HWs successfully submit and whose HWs are lost to the deep, dark rift of the intra-Canvas interwebs. For the first HW, ~10% of the class got a 0 by default from not submitting their HW by the deadline, and our emails were absolutely inundated with extension requests, pleas, and narratives lengthier than some dissertations I’ve read. We committed to a “no nothing” policy at the start and that was clearly communicated, so we put our foot down and braced ourselves for the onslaught of scathing diatribes. Much to our surprise, we only received a few.

Am I sympathetic? Absolutely. “Zoom fatigue” has hit me hard, too. However, I don’t feel that bad because I connected with my students early in the semester. Now, when I tell them I have to give them a zero, it’s not coming from some soulless keyboard warrior hiding behind the screen; it’s coming from someone who happens to hold a semi-authoritative-but-mainly-focused-on-learning-because-I-was-once-in-your-shoes-and-genuinely-want-to-help role. And that dampens the sting quite significantly.

There are lots of tangents here (not unlike the current draft of my thesis), but I think this is a good starting point. I’m excited to read others’ blogs and discuss the plethora of perspectives we carry!

4 thoughts on “What’s My Teaching Voice?”

  1. Jaisohn,

    It sounds to me like you’re on the right track (in multiple ways). First, I’d like to commend your use of formative feedback. So many instructors wait until the end of the semester to gather information from their students about how the class went. Though helpful, it doesn’t provide any opportunity to make improvements for the same group of students! I think you’re onto something here and hope others can follow your example. I also identify with your point about balancing the “friend” and “teacher” roles. I think it’s context-dependent, but it sounds like you’re already doing a great job finding that balance and connecting with your students. I think this is something we all have to face, and I’m interested to see how it changes depending on the course.

    Best of luck with the rest of the semester!
    Logan

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  2. Hi Jaisohn,

    I strongly agree with the idea of frequent surveys, communication is really important and sometimes s small adjustment makes a huge difference for students. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts and experiences in this post!

    Sam Salous

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  3. You adjusting your teaching style is an important strength, which you may consider as one of your core tenets. And to that, I would also so say that it may not be necessary to “solidify” your tenets. We evolve as teachers. As you stated, you change as a GTA each semester as you gain experience. You also mentioned some of your interests that may be similar to your students. As the world continues to change around us, your interests may become distant from your students’ as the years go on. You will always have a connection with your students. Deel discussed how she reflected on teachers she experienced to develop her teaching identity. In the same way, we also reflect on our experiences as a student to shape our identity. You are willing to be firm with your students on grading because you survived the rigorous course, and you’re confident the majority of students will succeed if they adjust to the assignment policy. In addition, I share similar sentiments about maintaining student/teacher boundaries. I believe it is essential for keeping a course like yours under control with a high volume of students. You are completely on the right track, and as Deel noted, be yourself.

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