Teaching as a Graduate Student (and Still Doing Everything Else Well, Too)

Posted April 5, 2017

By Ziv Bell

I can guarantee you that whenever my fellow graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) and I get together over lunch or a bottle of wine, we invariably complain quite colorfully about all of our time commitments, research projects, clinical work, and teaching responsibilities. We also experience varying levels of support and preparation for teaching and pressure to maintain research productivity. Some of our most common complaints involve (1) doubts about our teaching abilities, (2) the amount of time we spend teaching and prepping, and (3) losing our passion for teaching.

Image: SELC, https://goo.gl/FtvtRm, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://goo.gl/OOAQfn

My hope is that this post can help graduate students remedy some of these complaints and give advisors and supervisors additional ideas of how they can support their GTAs.

1. Dealing with Doubts

Graduate school can be an odd place, because one moment you are supposed to be a humble student soaking up wisdom from faculty, and the next you are supposed to present yourself and your ideas in front of your own students with confidence and pluck. It is natural to have doubts about whether your students like you, whether they trust you, and whether they are actually learning anything.

  • "How do you measure success?"

Benjamin Zander has a wonderful TED talk (Benjamin Zander: The transformative power of classical music) in which he talks about measuring success by the number of "shining eyes" in the audience. Your students who have shining eyes are the curious ones: the ones who come up after class with interesting questions, the ones who make teaching worth it. 

Image: TNS Sofres, https://goo.gl/s0DiTH, CC BY 2.0, https://goo.gl/BRvSA7

The foil to shining eyes, I believe, is shark eyes, which are flat,dull, and lifeless.

Image: kqedquest, https://goo.gl/7dEMrq, CC BY-NC 2.0, https://goo.gl/VnKlK8

 It is easy to get bogged down thinking about the students with chronic shark eyes, who make you feel boring and ineffective as an educator. However, you can think about measuring your success by the number of students with shining eyes, or the number of students you convert from shark eyes to shining eyes. Success could also be measured by a student who respects you enough to ask for a letter of recommendation, or receiving even one post-semester thank you email from a student who valued taking your class. Finally, record these moments of success. Print out nice emails, compile a list of positive comments from your students, and write yourself a note about the time your students’ eyes lit up about psychology. Whenever you have doubts about your teaching, open the folder and remind yourself about all of your teaching successes.

For example, in my success folder I have (1) an email from a Chinese student thanking me because she bombed the first exam but asked for help and ended up acing the course, (2) a note I wrote about the time a student wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat had an epiphany after completing an implicit-association test on race, and (3) the end-of-semester evaluation from a student who wrote that they were often tempted to skip class but because I always thank my students for coming they attended every class.

2. Saving Yourself Time and Headache

  • "I've told them at least 50 times, it's in the f@*#ingsyllabus"
Syllabi are indispensable for outlining course policies, emphasizing learning objectives, and establishing a social contract for the class. Syllabi, however, are not student-friendly. Students read syllabi about as carefully as they read the iTunes terms of service agreement. 

In addition to the syllabus, consider making an easily accessible, one-page document of the principal information students want to know: "What do I have to do? When is it due?” and, “Why is it part of this course?" They will still need to reference the syllabus for course policies, but they will be far less confused and anxious about readings and assignments.

  • Teach by Example

Students often strive to complete assignmentsas quickly as possible while exerting the least effort, which leads them tofind creative ways to format and finish assignments that can be frustrating to grade. A fairly simple solution for this is to create and distribute an example to demonstrate appropriate length of writing, formatting, depth of thinking, etc. A counter-argument may be that the purpose of an assignment is that students think critically and creatively, rather than follow a template. For some assignments I will concede that point, but for most cases, if you want students to write an essay following rough APA format (Intro, Method, Results, Discussion), give them an example or you'll be pulling out your own hair in frustration while grading.

  • Spread the Work with Your Students

Students frequently ask for more. More practice tests, more examples, more study guides. One option is to say you've given them enough (at the risk of receiving end-of-semester evaluations about how you didn't give them enough preparation for the exams), another option is to spend your evenings creating review materials, or a clever third option is to empower students to generate and share their own study guides and practice tests (read: make them do the work themselves).

  • When they ask for more examples of applications of concepts, ask them to find and share helpful YouTube videos from channels like Crash Course Psychology,StatisticsLecures, or 2-Minute Neuroscience.
  • When they ask for a study guide provide them a blank Google Doc they can make with their fellow students.
  • When they ask for a practice test, assign each student to write 1-2 questions, and with a little bit of time spent editing, you can give them a decent practice test.
  • And undoubtedly there will be a student who makes flashcards on a site like Quizlet. Ask that student if they would consider making their Quizlet public with the rest of the class.

The whole class benefits and each semester your students can add to the materials created in previous semesters to create a vast library of different review materials.

  • Spread the Work with Your Colleagues

Finally, after you and your students develop study guides, practice tests, etc., share them with other GTAs. They will appreciate it and then you can ask them to send you any helpful materials they have created. Through this symbiotic interaction you can share ideas and resources with GTAs who may have other specialties! Your program may have an online repository or it may benefit you to reach out to a few colleagues over email.

3. Staying Passionate

Your advisor may or may not be supportive of the time you spend on teaching. It is possible that your advisor considers teaching nothing more than a distraction from conducting research. If so, and especially if you want to pursue a career in which teaching plays a significant role, find at least one faculty member who is supportive and pick their brains about maintaining passion for teaching. It's easy to fall into going through the motions: lecture about this, quiz about that, grade more essays on the same prompt again. Bouncing new ideas off someone can invigorate and remind you about what you love about teaching psychology. Whether that person is your research advisor, an adjunct, a faculty member in another department, or another GTA, it is important to stay fresh and positive. It is also possible to find support among professional networks, teaching conferences/preconferences, and even social media.

  • “Why are they doing this to me?!”

When you think of the wacky emails you receive from students and their seeming inability to listen to announcements you make in class, it is easy and perhaps tempting to conclude that your students are actively trying to make your life hell. It is potentially healthier for you, however, to first attempt to understand their behavior in other ways.

  • If you can believe that your student chose to start their email with "yoprof" out of ignorance, rather than malice, it will be easier to respond with compassion and not contempt. Always assume positive intentions from students until you have clear evidence to the contrary! Additionally, there is a movement in higher education to recognize that we are not simply teaching content, but also citizenship. Educating students on email etiquette may indeed be a more valuable lesson in the scope of their life than a clear understanding of the difference between internal and external validity, for example.
  • In other instances, a student's poor attendance may not be due to laziness or millennial entitlement, but rather they might be working full-time, dealing with anxiety or depression, or struggling with the newfound responsibilities of living independently.Knowing about campus resources for academic advising and mental healthcare can help struggling students and allow you to empathize instead of begrudge students for not taking your class seriously.

Reframing frustrating student behavior can give your work a greater purpose by turning thoughts from "why are they doing this to me" into "how can I help them?"

  • Find Balance

It should go without saying that graduate students need strategies to help balance work and maintain self-care; especially when the demands of graduate school directly oppose efforts to stay sane and healthy. It is difficult, however, to offer specific ideas for self-care given the idiosyncratic nature of effective self-care. Indeed, another blog post dedicated entirely to self-care and balance in graduate school is warranted. In the meantime, take an inventory of self-care strategies. Keep doing things that work and experiment with new ways to relieve stress, promote happiness, and thrive in graduate school. Above all, feel validated in seeing self-care as a necessary part of your life.

Thinking back to the image of graduate students co-ruminating about the drags of graduate school, a few hours can easily pass with the only result that everyone is angrier than before. One idea I particularly like is to agree as a group that for every minute spent complaining, spend an equal amount of time generating solutions or talking about things that are going well. This enables us to commiserate without fueling any fantasies about dropping out of grad school.


Teaching can be such a rewarding experience, but along with most other aspects of graduate school, it can also be draining. GTAs need good coping strategies to manage doubts, time, frustration, and potential burnout. Defining success and keeping track of successful moments can helpstave off doubts. Creating student-friendly assignment calendars and examples can help reduce emails and empowering students to share study materials can reduce time spent making review material. Finally, finding supportive colleagues and reframing frustrating student behavior can help GTAs retain their passion for teaching.

We study and teach psychology because it enables students to think critically about research, social interactions, mental health, business, public policy, and medicine. In sum, we teach psychology because it makes the world a better place. Adopting ideas to enhance teaching experiences in graduate school and offering support to GTAs promotes positive teaching experiences and empowers GTAs to spend time and energy on teaching that makes the world a better place.


Ziv Bell is a graduate student in the Clinical Psychology PhD program at The Ohio State University, where he researches developmental psychopathology and teaches a flipped Introduction to Psychology course. He studied psychology and music at Willamette University and carries many of the lessons from teaching music into his psychology class. He can be reached at [email protected]

Special Thanks

To my colleagues teaching PSYCH 1100 for helping me more profoundly contemplate the art of teaching, and Melissa Beers for continuously supporting my passion for the teaching of psychology.