Being a TA for Dr. Berthold’s “Literary Experience” Class
by Chris Steib, '01
In March of 1999, toward the end of my sophomore year, I dropped my Education major to concentrate strictly on English. At this point I had accepted the fact that I would not have the opportunity to teach until after I had completed graduate school some four years later. However, in the fall of 2000, Dr. Michael Berthold accepted me as a teaching assistant for his English 1050 course, “The Literary Experience,” for the following semester. I had Dr. Berthold for courses in both poetry and prose in the two preceding semesters, so I was very excited at the prospect of working with him in Lit Ex.
My role as a TA was clear: I would read the required texts, observe classes each day (in this case, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays), teach several classes with my co-TA, and have the opportunity to teach solo. Initially, being an observer in the class was strange. However, it occurred to me a few days into the semester that I had never before had the opportunity to take notes on teaching and subject matter without the pressure of writing papers. For the first time in my college career, I was able to take notes on a professor’s teaching methods, the reactions of the class to certain material, and which subject matter worked best with which students. Although it may sound superfluous, reading all of the assigned material without the pressure of coursework proved to be extremely beneficial for my own learning experience. I found that the notes I took in the margins of the texts differed greatly from those I would have made had I been a student in the class. I picked out particular passages, motifs, and images that I thought would work best in a lesson plan or that would help others better understand the text. In the past I had only noted sections that would help in my own development and essays.
Throughout the semester I played an important role in the students’ learning and understanding of the texts. Each student was given my contact information in the event of a missed class, some confusion over a text, or some lingering question from the day’s notes. On several occasions the class broke down into small groups, led by Dr. Berthold, my co-TA, or myself. These classes were a great warm-up for my forthcoming teaching experiences, and it gave the students a chance to get to know me better in a more interactive environment. I found it beneficial for the students to talk with me in a small group, as it helped build a more relaxed relationship among us, but also informed them that they could come to me for help in the class.
In addition, I scheduled meetings with students prior to the due date of the first paper so that we could discuss their work and thoughts on the class thus far. Meeting with the individual members of the class was a bizarre experience at first, especially in my thinking of fellow college classmates as “students.” I then remembered my own experience visiting the Writing Center and realized how to perceive the situation. I was merely a more experienced student giving advice to primarily non-English majors who needed assistance—a friend with helpful insights. The tutoring sessions proved to be beneficial for both the Lit Ex students and me, as meticulously reviewing other students’ essays allowed me to perceive my own work with a more critical eye. The old cliché about teachers learning from students once again held true.
When the time came to teach the class, I was excited but also quite nervous; after all, I was only two years older than the students I was expected to instruct. However, Dr. Berthold assisted me in creating a lesson plan by giving me ideas of what he had taught in the past and some new material that he thought would work well with my teaching style. Creating my first lesson plan was easy; executing it proved to be more difficult. Dr. Berthold entrusted me with a short story by Flannery O’Connor, which I feared would not provide enough material to fill a whole class period. I did my best to stick to the detailed outline I created, but spontaneity quickly took over and I found myself only two-thirds of the way through the lesson plan with five minutes left in class. This certainly became a lesson in time management for me, and it also helped me build confidence in my ability to instruct a class without a strict outline. In addition, being in front of the classroom gave me a new angle from which to approach the given material and taught me how to extemporaneously build on ideas while teaching.
All in all, being a TA was by far the best learning experience I had at Villanova. Not only did I get a new perspective on the roles of both the students and the professor, but I was also able to play both of these roles in the same classroom. It was a fantastic experience, and I highly recommend it to anyone with a passion for education.