Graduate teaching assistants balance tight schedules with early preparation

Morgan Mawn, News Contributor

The responsibility of leading and structuring a class is a large time commitment for Oregon State University’s graduate teaching assistants, meaning they began prepping for spring term while many other students were still on break. 

Graduate teaching assistants are students who have already earned a bachelor’s degree and are now earning a higher level degree while working as a teaching assistant. To balance the responsibilities of being a GTA and their normal course load, their work begins before classes are even in session. While these GTAs can find themselves with a tight schedule, they also receive an opportunity to develop their own capabilities and shape the education and experience of other students. Undergraduate students within a GTA-led course or recitation are given a chance to connect with a teacher who has a lifestyle more alike to their own in comparison to normal professors.

Branwen Purdy, third-year math department graduate student and graduate student liason, said she has approximately 16 extra hours of work added onto her normal course workload due to GTA duties. 

Branwen said she is able to balance her schedule because her department is responsible in not over-working the GTAs and many of her duties have flexible hours.

Purdy said the impact GTAs have over their students is huge and not just from an educational point of view. According to Purdy, undergraduate students may feel more comfortable around a GTA than a professor.

“I think graduate students are more relatable to students than professors, precisely because we are students ourselves,” Purdy said.

As GTAs are students themselves, they must learn enough organizational skills to stay on top of their own graduate student classes while preparing for all the undergraduate classes they teach.

Alyssa Johnson, third-year chemistry department graduate student, said she faces difficulties finding the proper balance between her GTA responsibilities and her own classes. 

Johnson leads recitations and labs and spends about four hours a week preparing for these classes. She found that the busier the term is, the more responsible with her time she must be. Her dedication and attention to planning is what she attributes to her success as a busy GTA.

Johnson said the GTA work requires training that begins prior to when classes are in session to prepare GTAs for the teaching duties they’ll face each quarter. 

“I start ‘teaching’ duties at the beginning of September and they don’t take much of a break when we have winter, spring or summer breaks,” Johnson said.

Johnson values being a GTA for more than just the financial bonus.

“If you are only doing it to get a paycheck, you’ll find that the requirements for being a GTA can be more work than it appears,” Johnson said.

For Johnson, her hard work pays off with other rewards. Johnson said the improvements she’s seen in her public speaking skills and the satisfaction of a job well done are some of the benefits she enjoys from her job, as well as the opportunity to help undergraduate students succeed. 

“I have found that once you’re a teacher you are not only responsible for yourself, but for the knowledge that you provide to other people. I think if you enjoy seeing a student’s eyes light up when they finally get a concept, or helping students in areas that you may have once struggled in, then becoming a GTA is well worth the time commitment,” Johnson said.

Paige Mandelare, fourth-year chemistry department graduate student, said the skill sets GTAs are able to develop during their time as teaching assistants are crucial for graduate students. Mandelare said the experience is valuable no matter what life path she ends up choosing. 

“I believe the GTA time commitment is absolutely worth it even if you do not pursue education as a primary career,” Mandelare said. 

Purdy acknowledges that being a GTA is no easy task, but believes working with students more than makes up for the difficulties she has faced as a GTA.

“I almost never see being a TA as a commitment, it’s a privilege to get to work with the students here,” Purdy said.

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