September 2016

Teaching a New Course                                                                                                       By Mariela GiulianoPhoto Mariela

I can still remember the precise moment, when I received the e-mail from my department coordinator letting me know that I would be the Teaching Assistant for a Statistics Course. I stared at the computer for about 10 minutes, utterly dumbfounded that such a selection could have been made. As a psychology major whose strength has always been relationship-building, it seemed far from an ideal choice. People, not numbers, were the tools of my trade. Statistics were more of a “let’s-get-this-over-with” part of the field. Even though I had a background in education and regularly got good grades in statistics, I still felt exceptionally unqualified for the job. Knowing the basics of a concept does not necessarily mean one is qualified to teach it! With fear setting in, I began to mentally quiz myself: What was the standard error again? What was the Kruskal-Wallis test? I was certainly not a statistics specialist, but I believed I could see the path more clearly…

So, I decided to interpret the offer as a challenge to be embraced rather than an unwanted responsibility. What’s more, it was a challenge I would be ready for! Much preparation was necessary but I was certain the experience would turn out to be extremely rewarding. As the teaching started in earnest, I began to enjoy explaining concepts, looking for alternate ways to present ideas, and coming up with engaging examples. Of course, there was still an occasional question I was unsure of. But as a professor remarked at the last Teaching in Focus Conference (TIF) here at York: “students are more forgiving than we think”. I learned that if everything else in a tutorial is well prepared and students can see that you are invested in the process, they will certainly understand and even wait to get their answers. Needless to say, I have continued to TA for statistics for a number of years and it has become one of my absolute favourite courses to teach.

I relate this story to reinforce that we, as TAs, are not alone. It’s something we all need to remember. On my first day in the TA in Certificate Teaching (TACT), we were asked about various challenges that we face as teaching assistants. We went over time constraints, stress, difficult students, etc. Then the facilitator hit upon one of my biggest fears: having to TA for a course for which the subject matter was not all that familiar. But through our group discussion I realized I was not alone; that teaching is really about the journey rather than the destination, and that it’s as much our journey as it is the students’. It’s a lesson that has remained with me to this day.