Prepared to Teach?

Training for Graduate Teaching Assistants at King’s College London is ‘a shambles’

For many PhD candidates, embarking on a life in academia, teaching is one of the big draws of the profession. It is also a daunting prospect. Working as a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) is often the first teaching experience we undertake. We all take teaching seriously, and are committed to doing a good job, and to giving our students the best learning experience we can. PhD students tend to be people who care about education and have a commitment to university life. We have dedicated a lot of time, energy and money to the disciplines we work in and we want to give our students the opportunity to learn, ask questions, and to develop the same enthusiasm for the subject as we have ourselves.

One would hope that university management would feel similarly, and show their commitment to teaching by providing adequate, paid training for GTAs. Instead, they have withdrawn the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice in Higher Education (PGCAPHE), leaving King’s graduates significantly disadvantaged in the job market, as well as demonstrating the College’s shallow and bureaucratic approach to training.

The only mandatory training one must undertake before being a GTA at King’s College London is the Preparing to Teach course provided by the King’s Learning Institute. This is a one-day course taken by prospective Graduate Teaching Assistants from all schools. It is not subject specific so, for example, GTAs who teach discussion-based History seminars will receive identical training to those who work as demonstrators in a lab.

We asked a selection of GTAs what they thought of the training at King’s. The feedback were overwhelmingly negative. Here are a few of the responses:

‘My GTA training consisted of the bog-standard Preparing to Teach course. Over four hours we had a handful of very earnest academics giving short lectures on good teaching practice, but the diversity of departments represented and the brevity of the event meant that everything was very vague. In fact, it was so slight and wishy-washy that I can’t remember any of what we were actually taught, all that sticks in my mind was when we were made to watch the ‘Spanish Lesson’ sketch of ‘Monty Python’ as an example of ‘bad practice.’ It was pretty dire. I can’t help thinking that it would make a great deal more sense for individual departments to tailor their own training.

When it came to teaching on my course, I was fortunate in that the course convenor was very clear in his instruction, but I still went out in front of my first class feeling like a complete fraud, totally unqualified to teach anybody. How can we be expected to teach to a high standard when we aren’t educated ourselves in essential areas like marking, feedback and student support? Preparing to Teach feels more like bureaucratic box-ticking than a genuine attempt to train us.’

 

‘The Preparing to Teach course was an utter shambles! The course was poorly thought through, oversubscribed and contained almost no practical advice on teaching. The provision to ensure equality and comfort for all in the classroom was particularly disappointing. I can’t believe the university are happy to send us into classes with such dismal examples of teaching practice, demonstrated by the King’s Learning Institute.’

 

‘Having taught in two different departments at King’s, I was struck by the complete lack of uniformity in how Arts and Humanities introduces its GTAs to the role. In Film Studies we are more or less expected to just get on with it, with almost no training whatsoever beyond the impossibly generalistic ‘Preparing to Teach’ class. When I taught in the English department a couple of years ago, however, all GTAs were given a two-day training session, which was far more tailored to helping those new to teaching to engage with their students. There were certainly things that could have been improved, but the fact that English (a far bigger department, admittedly) devoted this much time to training shows that there is (was? – I don’t know if they still do it) a commitment to helping GTAs provide the best experience possible for their students. In Film Studies, as I said, we are kind of left to our own devices, and I think this lack of uniformity in approach really needs to be addressed. I’m not suggesting that A&H wide intro classes would work, but I think there should be an expectation that each department provide a minimum amount of properly tailored training to each new GTA.’

 

‘The PGCAPHE issue epitomises a lot of the frustration around the discrepancy between the training/apprenticeship framing and the actual provision of such. I find it interesting that I would know nothing about the status of where we’re at with it were it not for other helpful GTAs pressing for info. Zero open communication about this possible intensive session, for instance.’

 

‘I must say that the English Department has been very helpful throughout. Though we were not paid for these sessions, we attended one afternoon of training about teaching delivery and another evening session on marking, all of which took place well before the semester and were well-organized and appropriate. This makes the failures of Preparing to Teach even more apparent. Though the KIL staff seemingly have good intentions, the delivery of this course was appalling. It was too full (30+), the attendees were from a range of departments, the tasks were inappropriate and almost entirely redundant. An indicator of how bad it was is perhaps the fact that the KIL staff were seemingly unable to implement their own advice. The slides were all too full and none of them were explained properly – particularly those relating to the replacement of the PGCAPH, which makes sense in hindsight – and they contained no practical advice. Even when posed questions about possible scenarios all of the answers were painfully esoteric, as though the staff were unsuccessfully trying out their teaching methods on us. Someone would ask a straightforward question and get a response along the lines of ‘see, now I would say that you have already answered the question yourself.’ Now that I’m thinking about it again, it was actually quite funny (more so than the Monty Python perhaps).’

 

‘I’d say that the Preparing to Teach session left me more nervous about teaching than I was before. If KCL’s official teacher training dept didn’t know how to properly cover the basics of teaching – i.e. managing disruptive classes, engaging quiet students, preparing for seminars – then it was quite clear that no-one was going to help me. Thankfully the course convener for my module arranged a meeting with me beforehand where we went through this, but if he hadn’t done this then I would have been completely unprepared as there was nothing organised by the CMCI department as a whole. I’d also add that the list of new modules has come out again, and despite what I pointed out in the focus groups there is no information that distinguishes CMCI modules as PGT rather than undergrad, no mention of the fact that this is co-taught, and nothing that says how the actual modules requiring GTAs are yet to be confirmed (and won’t be until the summer).’
‘Firstly, I think that we should be paid to undertake training as GTAs – that may well make the College reconsider the quality and duration of the training we are obliged to attend. The short training sessions provided by the English Department were very good, I thought, mainly because they aligned broader teaching concepts to actual practice. We were shown, and worked with, practical examples, and in one session, were given feedback on how we had assessed an essay. To someone who has never marked before, that was really helpful! More bespoke training before GTAs start to teach would be great – along the lines of observing a seminar session conducted by the module convenor, or by a current GTA. The centrally provided ‘Preparing To Teach’ course was, however, a terrible counterpoint to departmental training. It tried to homogenise the teaching skills required, which was of no use to anyone. Also, ironically for GTAs encouraged to teach undergraduates how to think critically, the ‘Preparing to Teach’ course refused to give us that opportunity. We were told, in sweeping, broad-brush terms, what we should do as teachers, and not a single question raised by us on how to deal with classroom challenges was answered. It was a complete and utter waste of time. I would like my day back, please.’

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