April 9, 2010
Photo by Jaymie Koroluk
By Kris Foster
While working his way through a PhD in agricultural economics, Douglas Akhimienmhonan focused on his research agenda; he did not give much thought to a career path that could lead him to the head of the class as a teacher.
“Many U of S grad students, at least 50 per year, find careers in academia and teaching. A number do not receive the formal training needed to be effective teachers,” said Lawrence Martz, dean of the College of Graduate Studies and Research (CGSR). “When I taught my first class as a grad student I was told where to go, what time to be there, the course number and ‘good luck’. It is an issue that the university recognized and is addressing.”
To this end, CGSR partnered with the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness (GMCTE) to launch the University Graduate Teaching Fellowships and help PhD students become great teachers. The fellowships—valued at $18,000 and co-funded by the CGSR and participating colleges—expose PhD candidates to teaching practices, principles and training well before stepping in front of their first student-filled class.
For Akhimienmhonan the fellowship changed his perspective. Since receiving a fellowship for 2009-10, a teaching career is all he can think about. “I discovered that I just love teaching. It is my career of choice,” said the Nigerian-born Akhimienmhonan. “Not only did the fellowship provide me with the tools, knowledge and practice, but I now have the confidence to teach. It has changed how I think and feel about teaching.”
This set of teaching tools—and confidence—is a result of fellows completing the required GSR 982, a class delivered by GMCTE that involves in-class learning, in-class teaching and faculty mentorship.
In the first term of the course, students attend weekly seminar-style classes to learn about teaching: principles, tips, organization, developing course material, how to engage students and much more. The second term takes the students into the classroom where they turn their knowledge into practice and lead a three-credit undergraduate course. During both terms, the fellows receive ongoing mentorship from a faculty member in their department of study.
It elevates the teaching and learning experience at every level of the university, said Martz, and demonstrates the commitment the university has to teaching and learning excellence. “Grad students get a better learning experience and are better prepared to teach because of these fellowships. As a result, the undergraduate students they teach get a better learning experience. Even the mentors raise their teaching by getting exposed to new teaching ideas and approaches.”
For Akhimienmhonan, who originally applied because of the financial relief the fellowship provided, his new perspective was an unexpected benefit. “I have been a student, but never a teacher. From watching teachers to becoming one, it changes your perspective. A teacher is a role model and a motivator, that is a very exciting role to play in a student’s life.”
Another benefit for fellowship recipients is the advantage they have as they move into their careers, well prepared to lead their classrooms effectively. “Graduate students support teaching at universities across Canada, but there are not many institutions that are making the effort to build teaching skills like we are with this fellowship program,” said Martz.
“We launched this program last year to create a cohort of 20 or so PhD students who are committed to teaching and to surround them with the support to be successful. This fellowship puts all aspects of teaching together and will go a long way to creating great teachers, and I think, based on last year’s results, it will be around for a long time.”