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View looking over shoulder of young instructor facing a classroom of seated college students

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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 135,000 graduate students work as teaching assistants in higher education institutions across the country. Those students have a direct impact on the quality of instruction for millions of undergraduates. They teach sections, grade assignments, mentor students in office hours, and sometimes design and teach entire courses from scratch.

In my career as a graduate student and now a faculty member in the University of California (UC) system, I have witnessed the growth on our campuses and beyond of the infrastructure dedicated to training these students for their teaching responsibilities. The expansion of teaching centers, the creation of teaching certificates, and the establishment of a broad range of programming on pedagogy and student learning have enabled graduate students to carry out their instructional roles with increased confidence and competence.

Not only was I the beneficiary of those programs as a graduate student, but I also contributed to their development and have trained close to 2,000 graduate students in the UC and California State University systems on how to build inclusive and equitable classrooms, encourage student participation, and implement evidence-based pedagogy. Yet I found that, amid those successes, one aspect of teaching has been conspicuously absent from most programming: helping graduate students develop their own distinct teaching style.

Proficient teaching is a craft. Navigating the classroom with confidence, fostering a welcoming atmosphere, earning students’ trust and gaining their commitment to the course mechanics require more than a perfunctory application of the latest insights from the research literature. They require instructors to both experience and manifest their teaching style as genuinely authentic. You can be an effective teacher in many ways, but key to all of them is feeling comfortable with your presentation of self in the classroom. In my experience, undergraduate students perceive authenticity in this sense as honest and committed, and that lays the foundation for productive collaboration in a course.

How can we help graduate students cultivate a teaching style that draws on the research literature but is distinctly their own—one that feels authentic because it emerges organically from their values, their personality and their life experience? I’d like to share how I do it, in four steps.

Step 1: Begin with values. Most programming on teaching today rightly advocates for a student-centered approach to pedagogy. This orientation is an important corrective to a long educational history in which the focus was far more on the interests of faculty members and academic disciplines.

Over the past several decades, research has shown that pedagogical approaches that neglect students’ views and experiences make the classroom feel alienating and compromise the achievement of learning goals. However, just as students are not empty vessels passively absorbing knowledge from instructors, instructors likewise are not blank slates passively echoing students’ views and interests. Classrooms bloom into meaningful learning spaces when both students and instructors feel fully immersed in the interaction, experiencing each other’s presence as genuine expressions of their authentic selves.

To build toward this, graduate students who serve as teaching assistants must begin by identifying the core moral values that motivate their teaching—a question I ask them to address in my pedagogy seminar through a short written reflection. What do they care about most? Their answers are rooted in their educational biographies.

Some students had a teacher at one point who ignited in them a passion for learning, and they wish to do the same for their students. Others care deeply about equity and representation and aim to create courses where students find echoes of their own lives, ensuring that the course mirrors the diverse tapestry of their experiences. The teaching assistants’ answers are as varied as their personal histories. By recognizing the values that inspire their approach to education, graduate students can establish the foundation for cultivating a teaching style that is distinctly rooted in their life experience.

Step 2: Identify the joys and challenges of teaching. Next, I ask graduate students about the specific teaching activities during which they feel most comfortable, joyful, competent and immersed. Some find it invigorating to lecture about the ideas, insights and findings that sparked their intellectual curiosity. Others enjoy close conversations in office hours where they share their own educational biographies with their students as part of a process of building trust and empathy.

We also identify the aspects of teaching they find challenging, those that require a more disciplined and self-conscious effort to accomplish. These need not be things they dislike, though it is important to identify those as well. (Grading often comes up.) For instance, some don’t enjoy lecturing and others feel uncomfortable during close conversations in office hours, even though they recognize the value of those discussions.

There are no wrong or right answers. The goal is simply to discern how each grad student’s personality lines up with the various concrete facets of teaching. It is equally important to discuss how they carry out those activities or, for those that don’t yet have teaching experience, how they envision carrying them out.

Step 3: Develop a critical understanding of your presentation of self. A key part of this process is developing a critical self-awareness in my graduate students about how their social position and identity influences their classroom environment. As Erving Goffman famously stated, in our presentation of self, there is both the information “we give” and the information “we give off.” That is no different for teachers.

I encourage my graduate students to ask themselves how their students are likely to perceive them, how that could impact their teaching and classroom dynamics, and how they might want to address that perception. This isn’t exclusively a matter of considering clear external identity markers such as gender expression or race–although those are crucial. Research has shown that other facets of how we carry ourselves in the classroom can also influence how students relate to us, such as the vocabulary we use, our body language and even our attire.

Step 4. Connect everything to the research literature. The final step is asking the graduate students to evaluate the various dimensions of their teaching style—their values, practices and presentation of self—against the empirical literature to discern what is aligned with the research, what is not and how to manage any discrepancies.

Understanding the research empowers graduate students to make informed decisions about the methods best suited to honor their values and attain the desired learning outcomes, all while remaining true to themselves. For instance, if what you care about as an instructor is equity, a growing body of work identifies key challenges and best practices. If you normally speak with a sophisticated vocabulary, it’s worth knowing that first-generation students might be reluctant to approach you with questions as a result. The way we speak isn’t something we can change easily, but knowing the research can prompt us to explore alternative methods for making sure our students feel comfortable reaching out to us.

Graduate students play a pivotal role in the instructional mission of colleges and universities. It is incumbent upon us to assist them in developing a teaching identity that reflects their personal experiences, values and aspirations. Indeed, the most meaningful educational experiences unfold when both teachers and students can simply be themselves.

Michel Estefan is assistant professor of teaching in the department of sociology at the University of California, San Diego.

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