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Three Things I Wish I Knew as a Graduate Student Teacher

10 Oct 2019 2:00 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By Kristina Howansky, Ph.D., St. Mary's College of Maryland

It’s Fall 2013. I am in my first semester as a Social Psychology PhD student. I stand in front of my class of 50 almost-as-anxious-as-I-am Psychological Statistics undergraduate students. They stare at me; I stare at them. My heart races. I ask myself, “Who the heck gave me the authority to do this?!”

Being a graduate student teacher (GST) can be one of the most difficult and most rewarding experiences in graduate school. As I reflect back on my time as a GST, there are a few key pieces of advice I wish I could have told myself that first day in my statistics course. 

You’re not an expert at everything and that’s a good thing.

What if I tell my students incorrect information?! What if a student asks me a question that I don’t know the answer to?! My biggest anxiety as a GST centered around appearing incompetent. I believed that if my students thought I wasn’t knowledgeable about everything under the umbrella of the course topic I would lose their respect. Ironically, what I most feared that first day in my statistics course has developed into one of my favorite experiences in the classroom.

You don’t know the answer to a student’s question? GOOD! As a classroom leader and role-model, not knowing the answer provides opportunities for both you and your students to learn. When you don’t know the answer, you have the chance to model a growth mindset for your students. You can highlight that no one knows everything and that everyone—yes even us! —has the ability to learn and change. You can model this by responding with excitement to questions you don’t know the answer to. Getting stumped by a student question also provides the chance for you to highlight that psychological science is ongoing. You can use this as an opportunity to teach students how to conduct a preliminary literature search. Still don’t have the answer? Even better! Now you can empower students to get involved in research and answer it themselves.

At the end of the day we might be niche experts in our content areas but students themselves have diverse backgrounds and life experiences that can enrich classroom discussion. This is why…

…you can learn as much from your students as they can learn from you.

During a classroom discussion about sexism and gender stereotypes in my Social Psychology course, an older male student raised his hand and emphatically stated, “well if thinking men shouldn’t cry is sexist, then I’m sexist!” My gut reaction was anger. I wanted to immediately disparage this student for proudly identifying as a sexist. I am so glad I didn’t.

Instead, I asked him to tell me more. He explained that as a father of young sons, he sees how the boys in his sons’ classes are bullied when they emote. As a working professional, he saw the way the men in his workplace were expected to behave. He wanted to prepare his sons for the harsh expectations that society has for men. From his perspective, it was more important to protect his children by teaching them to conform to gender expectancies than it was for him to tear down gender norms.

I’m not a parent. I have never really worked in a business environment. I’m not a man. I never had the opportunity to consider sexism from these perspectives. Because I listened, I (and his fellow students!) were given the opportunity to look at a complex issue from a perspective we hadn’t before. This led to an extraordinarily rich and multifaceted class discussion about parenting and gender roles.

As educators, we should encourage our students to recognize they will be more knowledgeable than we are on some topics and empower them to contribute their unique voices to classroom discussion. There are, of course, many important things to consider (e.g., not expecting minority students to be responsible for teaching their classmates about minority experiences, recognizing the importance of encouraging students to support their arguments with facts and not opinions) — but that’s a different blog post. At the end of the day, we should remain open to learning from our students.

EMPATHY. EMPATHY. EMPATHY!

Who I am in the classroom today is vastly different than who I was just a few years ago. When I first started teaching, I thought I needed to be tough. Like, really tough. Absolutely no late work accepted, NO EXCEPTIONS! If your absence for an exam is unexcused, you’re not making up that exam, NO EXCEPTIONS! If you miss class, I will not send you the slides, NO EXCEPTIONS! In my mind, the more rigid my course policies and the more strongly I held onto them, the more students would prioritize the work in my course and respect me. I thought that my course should be their main focus and felt insulted when it wasn’t. I was wrong.

As undergraduate students ourselves, did we not prioritize some classes above others? To quote the philosopher Ron Swanson from Parks & Recreation, “never half-a** two things. Whole-a** one thing.” We should recognize that sometimes, our students can’t “whole-a**” our courses. Students are often trying to balance work, families, and heavy course loads. We need to recognize that sometimes, your class is not the most important thing in their life and that’s okay.

We can be strict about setting course policies, but should build flexibility into the policies themselves. For example, accepting late work with a penalty. Having one make-up day in the semester that any missed work or exams can be made up without a grade cut. There are numerous opportunities to incorporate compassion into our syllabi.

Over time, I’ve learned that flexibility and empathy do not equal weakness. If you treat your students as full human beings deserving of respect and compassion, they will reciprocate. 


Dr. Kristina Howansky is an assistant professor of psychology at St. Mary's College of Maryland where she teaches courses in Statistics, Research Methods, and Social Psychology. When she's not grading homework, she enjoys spending time outside with her adorable but terribly behaved dog, Bowser. 

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