Optional TA Training Aims to Enhance Classroom Inclusivity
Issue   |   Tue, 10/03/2017 - 22:17

Student teaching assistants from various academic departments gathered on Sunday, Sept. 24 for a training session that covered issues such as effective teaching practices and inclusivity in classrooms. The training session was part of the college’s goal to reexamine the ways in which faculty and other educators interact with students on campus.

According to Robert Siudzinksi, program director for careers in education professions, the idea for the event stemmed from a collaboration between Professor of Economics Adam Honig, who had developed teaching assistant training programs in the past, Professor of Mathematics David Cox, the Center for Teaching and Learning, and other members of the college faculty and administration. The training session was funded and supported by the Dean of the Faculty.

The training session included practical advice, such as emphasizing the correct pronunciation of students’ names, to help new teaching assistants connect with their peers.

Teaching assistants were also counseled on more general issues within the learning environment. Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning Riley Caldwell-O’Keefe noted the importance of reminding teaching assistants to consider their personal identity and the identity of their students as well as the “ways you can think about identity in a way that helps you invite students into the learning process.”

In a leadership role on campus, she said, the teaching assistant position comes with a responsibility to recognize and consider the individuals TAs interact with.

Caldwell-O’Keefe joined the college in 2016 but had heard stories of how teaching assistant training had been administered in previous semesters. In the past, teaching assistants had attended a monthly meeting presented by alternating departments that would describe the duties and responsibilities specific to their department and lead a discussion on the concerns and challenges their teaching assistants face. This system was retooled this year.

“It was more passive kinds of training that was about receiving information, but not necessarily about changing institutional culture, which is really the impetus for this training,” said Caldwell-O’Keefe.

“When I got here last year, I was trying to understand Amherst culture and asking a lot of questions and talking to a lot of people,” she said. “In STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields], … faculty member after faculty member said that working with TAs was really inconsistent.” She also noted that the training provided to previous teaching assistants differed greatly among departments and professors.

Siudzinski emphasized the need for well-trained teaching assistants in the classroom learning process.

“Some faculty, they don’t even remember when they learned [the material], and with their expertise, it’s so layered [with] the years of practice and readings and professional development … You can know your subject area, but teaching is not one size fits all,” Siudzinski said. Teaching assistants, on the other hand, have learned the material more recently and are therefore more likely to identify areas where students may have difficulty.

“We are just trying to share with the incoming TAs that there are little things you can modify — little baby steps — to make a more inclusive environment,” said Siudzinski.

Though the college administration has turned its attention to increasing preparation for teaching assistants, some said they were provided with an adequate amount of support even prior to this training. Yariana Diaz ’18, who has worked as a teaching assistant for five semesters and spoke on a Q&A panel at the training session, said she felt “well-supported” by her department in previous years in an online interview.

“I’ve worked with a number of different courses and professors in the math department, and for the most part, I’ve felt that I’ve had everything that I needed to make my work as easy as possible,” said Diaz.

The recent interest in updating and revising the teaching assistant position is part of a larger trend within the college to update the ways in which educators and departments on campus collaborate with students, said Caldwell-O’Keefe.

“I think [Amherst] Uprising and the workload conversation have had such a huge impact on the ways that administrators and many faculty think about their interactions with students,” said Caldwell-O’Keefe, though she said the focus on the teaching assistant position was an indirect result of the Amherst Uprising rather than a direct consequence.

Amherst Uprising was a sit-in held on campus in Nov. 2015 in which students demonstrated against exclusivity, race-based misconduct and inadequate support for students from diverse backgrounds.

“Many faculty, before the Uprising, were using inclusive pedagogical practices in their class … but what the Uprising did was make it visible in a way that it wasn’t before — the need and desire that students had to be central to the conversation about the shape of learning,” said Caldwell-O’Keefe.