Serving as a teaching assistant (TA) can be one of the most rewarding experiences students encounter during their graduate school experience. It allows for professional development, building leadership skills, and sharing a love of science; however, the experience is also fraught with challenges for many students who have no experience managing a classroom. First time TAs often struggle with everything from time management to dealing with tricky student situations. That’s why Teaching Professor Mary Jo Bojan decided to launch a TA mentorship program for new TAs within the Department of Chemistry.
Bojan was inspired to start the program after attending a national teaching assistant workshop hosted by the Cottrell Scholars Collaborative Initiative alongside fourth-year chemistry graduate student Marissa Saladin. While attending the workshop, Bojan and Saladin learned about best practices for developing TA training programs and were quickly inspired to launch a TA mentor program within the Department of Chemistry.
After returning to Penn State, Bojan and Saladin worked together to create a program that would support first-time TAs within the department. The training curriculum they developed focuses on helping TAs to become more confident as teachers, providing useful tools for classroom and workload management, and helping TAs to gain a deeper understanding of their role.
“Most graduate students don’t come to Penn State with the ultimate goal of teaching, but I wanted to help others see being a TA as a professional development opportunity for whatever careers they aspire to have,” Saladin says of her involvement with the TA mentorship program. “Communication is one of the most essential skills a scientist can have and being able to clearly explain general chemistry concepts to students is the first step to clearly explaining complex research topics. This skill, as well as many others that come along with being a teacher, doesn’t always come naturally to everyone.”
Bojan and Saladin recruited graduate students Kristin DiMonte and Ryan Myers to serve as the first class of mentors alongside Saladin, and the inaugural class of the program was launched in the fall of 2019. The mentor team kicked off the semester by working with a group of new graduate student TAs during the department’s two-week TA training program, leading mock recitations, mock grading sessions, sharing their teaching experiences, and establishing relationships with the new TAs. The new TAs also learned classroom management techniques, how to manage Learning Assistants (LAs), and how to handle difficult classroom situations. Afterwards, the mentors visited the new TAs during the first few weeks of the semester as they led recitations and provided them with feedback.
The mentors found that new TAs who participated in the program reported that the mentorship experience helped them feel more confident and supported in their teaching role. However, the program also offered opportunities for the graduate mentors.
As Bojan explains, “I was very pleased with how well the mentor TA assignment program worked. We had an excellent group of CHEM 110 TAs last fall and I believe that is largely the result of the attention the mentors gave to the new TAs. The three mentors took their group of mentees under their wings and guided them to success. They were excellent role models and it was exciting to see both the new TAs and the mentors grow personally and professionally.”
Saladin, who recently completed her PhD, agrees. She notes that her experience has helped her prepare for her new position as a chemistry faculty member at Xavier University in Ohio. “I know I learned a lot when we got started, and I think it's really helped me get the confidence I needed for this upcoming position.”
This success has inspired Bojan to continue the program this fall. This year, the CHEM 110 TA mentors will be graduate students Anthony Katona, Kelsey Schlegel and Sarah O’Boyle. Together, they will bring many years of teaching experience to the training, and they are excited to help TAs balance teaching, course work, and research responsibilities.
“They face a tremendous challenge because they will have to train the new graduate students to teach on-line,” adds Bojan, “but I am sure they will be excellent role models and am confident that this will strengthen their professional skills and help the new graduate students ease into the world of online teaching.