TAs are usually focused on their students. “How can I help my students learn what they need to know?” is rightly the looming question TAs ask themselves. However, it is important to remember that teaching is also about your own learning and growth. Thinking about what you want to get out of teaching and pushing yourself to pursue that can make for a more meaningful and fruitful TA experience. In this post, a TA writes about her personal goals as a TA and the importance of challenging herself to step outside her comfort zone.
Presenting to a large group of co-workers, peers, or strangers has never been a totally comfortable endeavor for me. In our collaborative and transdisciplinary age, however, interpersonal skills are undeniably key to success. Engaging an audience is critical in any field whether pitching a business idea, community organizing, or managing projects. Feeling confident and competent at the front of the room with all eyes on you is a valuable skill which has the power to differentiate job candidates. All great speakers I've met in my life give the same advice; practice, practice, practice. This is part of the reason I applied to be a TA and the reason I decided to branch out in my second semester of the TA position. A first semester filled with grading, attending lectures, hosting guest lecturers, and leading occasional class discussions definitely proved to be an 'assistant' role. Although I learned an immense amount of content and teaching tips from working with my professor, my interpersonal skills were not strengthened. This semester I had the option of teaching an online course or teaching a much more demanding 2 class a week lecture alone. Instead of going the easy way out and sticking to my comfort-level, I chose the latter.
At first this decision seemed comparable to throwing a dog into water to teach it how to swim. However, this dog already knew how to doggy paddle as I knew how to present. We both may need a little practice to perfect our stroke, but neither would drown.
As my students filed out of the first class, they called 'see you next week!', and I knew I made the right decision. Now in Week 3, I've already felt my public speaking skills and more importantly, my confidence increase.
Humans are biologically programmed to rise to the challenge when forced. The largest hurdles to self-improvement seems to be our own perceived limits of what we can (or can't) do. However as my experience suggests, we frequently underestimate ourselves. The moral of this story is definitely not to throw dogs into pools, but to always challenge yourself. Personal and professional growth must be an intentional and life-long process. Put yourself in demanding situations which force you to improve and help you become the person you'd like to be. If your current position doesn't call for lecturing, ask your professor if you can play a larger role in class. And if you have the option to get out of your comfort zone, always take it. Push yourself because no one else is going to do it for you. It's not always easy, but it's always worth it.