Illuminating skills learned from teaching

By: Mary Beisiegel, Oregon State University

This past spring, I received an email from a graduate student who was concerned about applying for jobs in industry. The student wrote: “I’m having a difficult time trying to market my teaching experience. I’ve been teaching for three years now and I want to leverage that in my applications. I’m just not sure what to say beyond ‘improving communication skills’.”

Whether their interests are in academic positions or not, many graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) are concerned about the jobs they will find and whether they are prepared for those jobs. I have led the graduate teaching assistant training in the Department of Mathematics at Oregon State University since 2013. In that time, I have come to realize it is critical to help GTAs understand the professional skills they develop during their graduate careers, particularly as they learn to teach. My goal in this note is to unpack and describe some of the processes of teaching to help the GTAs appreciate the skills they learn through teaching, and see that these skills can be applied to a variety of jobs beyond academia.

I searched the internet for recent articles that describe the skills employers are looking for, now and in the future. In the list that follows, I highlight some of skills that were common across these articles and discuss how GTAs develop these skills through their teaching. This list is not meant to be exhaustive.

In providing this list, I want GTAs to see that teaching is much more than writing mathematics on a board, and that there is much to be learned through the processes of teaching. Illuminating the skills learned through the processes of teaching will help our GTAs reflect on their practices, help them to reflect on what they are doing as teachers, and inspire further exploration. This reflection in turn helps GTAs better describe their relevant experience in cover letters, on CVs, in their teaching statements, and in conversations about their work as teachers. I believe that explicit attention to these skills can contribute greatly to the professional development of GTAs.

Core skills learned through the processes of teaching

Communication is a critical skill recognized on multiple websites, and teaching is all about communication. As teachers, we learn to communicate complex ideas in multiple ways, and we communicate much more than the mathematical concepts we write on the board. We use many modes of communication (speaking, writing, body language, facial expressions, written assignments, handouts, and online materials). We communicate many messages (encouragement, positivity, enthusiasm), and of course we communicate mathematical content (mathematical ideas, problem solving strategies, multiple representations of mathematical concepts).

Most of what we communicate to our students comes through public speaking in classrooms – standing in front of small or large groups of people, who look at us all at the same time, waiting for us to speak to them and to get the class going. Through the processes of teaching, we learn to build skills of responsiveness and to adapt our instruction to the different ways students solve problems. Teaching naturally provides GTAs with opportunities to cultivate the ability to speak publicly and give presentations. Beyond this, teaching helps GTAs learn to convey abstract ideas effectively, in ways that people with varying backgrounds and learning styles can understand. Effective public speaking is a skill that applies in many different situations: job interviews, conference presentations, or presentations in the work place.

What other communication skills might we learn and hone through the processes of teaching?

Several websites noted that facilitation is an important skill for people interested in leadership positions. In fact, one author [1] referred to facilitation as the “key to the future of work.” What work is involved in facilitating student learning? Leading a group of 10, 20, 30, or more students in productive group learning and problem-solving activities is rich, complex work. Facilitating students’ group work on mathematical tasks and conversations about their work requires giving clear instructions and setting expectations. Effective facilitation requires attention to inclusivity and equity to ensure that all students’ voices are heard and supported, and that every student’s work is recognized as valuable and contributing to the course. Facilitation also means actively listening, responding in ways that lead to productive conversations, helping students learn to how to communicate their mathematical thinking, and getting them to work as a team and support each other.

Developing interpersonal skills is also essential for any kind of work with people. Some websites noted that people with strong interpersonal skills are more successful in both their personal and professional lives ([2], [3]). Another website noted that interpersonal skills are considered “employability skills” [4] because hiring managers do not want to hire people without them. A few websites noted that applicants should highlight interpersonal skills in cover letters and/or resumes. So, what are interpersonal skills? They are also called ‘people skills’ – the behaviors and characteristics we use when we communicate and collaborate with others, such as active listening, empathy, collaboration, problem-solving, adaptability, and leadership.

Interpersonal skills can also be learned outside the classroom, during office hours and in tutoring sessions when teachers work with individual or small groups of students. Through these interactions with students, GTAs can learn what mathematical explanations and representations might be best for helping students understand a mathematical idea. In addition, GTAs can reflect on their interactions to learn how their communication with students can be positive and encouraging. Office hours can also include tough situations and conversations, which may require honest or critical feedback that is also supportive and encouraging. GTAs can learn a great deal from their work with individual students and translate that learning into deeper interpersonal skills that can be applied to any number of future work places.

Much of what we do as teachers is lesson planning. Planning for and teaching a course is a form of project management. Before I became a teacher, I was a project manager at an educational software company. Multiple websites offer anywhere from five to ten steps for successful project management ([5], [6]). These steps include determining the objectives of the project (learning outcomes), initiating the project (writing the syllabus, planning the term, finding course materials), executing the project (doing the work of teaching and working with students), managing the project (monitoring progress, re-calibrating, staying connected to project outcomes), and completing the project (getting to the end of the term having covered the material of the course). Indeed, the work of planning a course, sequencing concepts, problems and tasks, connecting past ideas to current ideas, foreshadowing what students will encounter later in the class or in future classes helps our TAs learn about project management.

Once a course is mapped out for the term, there is the day-to-day implementation of the project through specific lessons. GTAs can learn to plan specific features of the lesson, such as lecturing, group work, and student presentations, when and how those features will occur, and how they might create alternatives should a lesson not go as planned. Planning for specific lessons gives GTAs the opportunity to think deeply about what mathematical concepts they will present to students and how they might have students engage in mathematical activities around those concepts. Some questions GTAs might ask when planning for a lesson include: What mathematical concepts do we want to communicate? What representations might we use? At what points in a lesson might we pause and let students do some mathematical work – and why would we pause for those particular tasks? These questions can be applied to multiple work places in terms of how work happens and why, the sequencing of tasks, and revisiting and revising work to improve outcomes. How might homework sets reinforce classroom learning and prepare students for the next class, to keep the mathematical momentum going?

Other practical skills developed through teaching

An important skill listed on several websites is analysis of data. Often, the work of grading is simply described as marking students’ work as correct, incorrect, or somewhere in between. I would argue that ‘grading’ does not adequately describe the various ways that teachers assess students’ learning through homework, quizzes, exams, formative and summative assessment. Assessing students’ work is much more complex and requires much more thought. Teachers regularly analyze data as they administer assessments, analyze student work, and make conclusions about how they might modify their teaching to improve student outcomes. Assessing student learning requires the teacher to meaningfully interpret student work and try to understand what students were thinking when they solved a problem. By assessing student learning, GTAs will learn how to analyze data, understand it, and respond to it. They will learn how to keep electronic records, compute statistics, and make decisions on how to proceed.

GTAs learn to use software programs during their graduate course work (e.g., Matlab, Python, SAS, SPSS, and so on), and they also learn about various learning technologies used in the classes and recitations they lead. These technologies include the use of Clickers, Canvas, Blackboard, MyMathLab, Geogebra, Desmos, Learning Catalytics, and open resource materials, among many others. Not only do GTAs learn those programs, but they also learn how to help students to use those technologies. In these ways, GTAs are developing many skills that can be applied to multiple work places.

Conclusion

I believe the list above is a good first step in helping GTAs to appreciate the skills they learn through teaching. However, it is essential that we go beyond informing GTAs that they are learning these skills because, eventually, they will have to present themselves as people with these skills. It is critically important that GTAs become conversant in these skills, to develop their own voice and an understanding of how they authentically present themselves as someone with these skills. Consequently, I ask the GTAs to reflect on their experiences in classrooms with these skills in mind. They write about how they see themselves learning these skills through different teaching situations. Some of these situations might include how they communicate a difficult idea to students, how they sequence a lesson and why they thought that sequence was effective (or not), or how and why they might improve on their assessments of student learning. In writing about these situations, GTAs reflect on how they are growing as teachers and what skills they have learned through the processes of teaching, which helps them see the way their teaching experience can be applied across multiple professions.

Through these types of activities, I think we can help GTAs appreciate what they learn from their teaching experiences and help them to translate that learning into a concrete, explicit set of skills they can apply to multiple professions. And, for students like the one cited above, we can provide them with ways to present themselves as learned professionals.

Bibliography

[1] Klein, B. (2017). What “facilitation” really means and why it’s the key to the future of work. Retrieved August 28, 2018 from https://www.fastcompany.com/40467377/what-facilitation-really-means-and-why-its-key-to-the-future-of-work.

[2] Terrell, S. (2018). What are interpersonal skills and why are they so important? Retrieved August 28, 2018 from https://blog.mindvalley.com/what-are-interpersonal-skills/?utm_source=google_blog

[3] The Skills You Need. (n.d.). Interpersonal skills. Retrieved August 28, 2018 from https://www.skillsyouneed.com/interpersonal-skills.html

[4] Doyle, A. (2018). Interpersonal skills list and examples. Retrieved August 28, 2018 from https://www.thebalancecareers.com/interpersonal-skills-list-2063724

[5] Sundwall, H. (1996). Seven steps to success for project managers. PM Network, 10(4), 31–32. Retrieved August 30, 2018 from https://www.pmi.org/learning/library/seven-steps-success-project-managers-3313

[6] Lucidchart Content Team. (2017). 5 essential project management steps. Retrieved August 30, 2018 from https://www.lucidchart.com/blog/5-essential-project-management-steps.

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