The social, emotional, and intellectual climate of a classroom is key to enhance students’ learning (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, & Norman, 2010). Preparing future educators, such as Graduate Teaching Assistants (“TAs” thereafter), for creating respectful and productive classroom climate is an important responsibility for an educational institution like UBC. In this article, we would like to showcase a TA training program on classroom climate by introducing the case of the Department of Geography.
In 2013/14, the CTLT Aboriginal Initiatives team had the pleasure of collaborating with two TA Training Coordinators in the department: Leigh Barrick and Jessica Hallenbeck. Leigh is a PhD student and Co-Coordinator for the Teaching Enhancement and Professional Development Series in the department. Jessica is a PhD Candidate and Indigenous Content in the Classroom Coordinator in the department. Throughout the year, we designed and facilitated three TA training workshops with them focusing on issues of equity, diversity, and Indigenous content in the classroom. We asked them to share classroom climate issues specific to Geography classrooms and their reflections on the workshops.
What are some of the challenges for TAs in your department with respect to the issues of equity, diversity, and Indigenous content in the classroom?
Leigh Barrick (LB): A significant portion of Geography course offerings engage directly with Aboriginal history and contemporary Aboriginal issues, cultures and systems of knowledge. Course content also deals with the geographies and histories of a range of social and cultural groups, and some courses work specifically with the concept of diversity itself. Further, as in any department on campus, TAs in Geography encounter many forms of diversity within the student body they teach.
One challenge that Geography TAs worry about and regularly face is how to navigate tense or traumatic classroom moments. For instance, a tense moment could develop around a discriminatory remark made by a student or instructor. Whether a comment like this is meant to offend or hurt, or is spoken unintentionally, the instructor faces the challenge of resolving the situation in a way that is productive and that reaffirms the classroom as an inclusive environment. One of the hardest things about these moments is that they demand an immediate response and can be profoundly damaging if left unaddressed, leaving the TA little time to process what has happened, or to brainstorm an appropriate response.
Jessica Hallenbeck (JH): One challenge is that TAs do not have control over what content they are being asked to teach. Some TAs discussed feeling uncomfortable teaching from the lecture or the readings and were unsure of how to proceed when placed in situations where they were being asked to teach problematic concepts / content. The second challenge is also related to course content. TAs discussed a general absence of Indigenous Peoples / content / context in courses. TAs were concerned and troubled about these absences but were unsure of how to address this while making changes to course content is considered to be beyond the scope of their job.
What stood out to you most in the series of the TA workshops that we have collaborated?
LB: One activity that stood out to me during our series of TA workshops was a role-play designed to help TAs anticipate how tense or traumatic classroom moments arise, and strategize how to address them. Workshop participants first watched an excellent film from What I Learned in Class Today: Aboriginal Issues in the Classroom. The film included interview excerpts from Aboriginal students at UBC who had experienced discriminatory remarks in their classes. Beyond provoking discussion on social position and tokenization, this film allowed us to practice intervening in a classroom incident, playing the roles of students and instructor. Even as a role-play, stopping and redirecting the interaction was not easy! This activity gave us a lot to think about in terms of how these moments arise, and prepared us with strategies to intervene.
JH: There was a lot of positive response to the video content. I think TAs really want to feel like they have come away from a workshop with tangible strategies and resources, and the videos provided that. I also think that collaborating with CTLT helps to create a workshop space that is welcoming and extends in helpful ways beyond the resources of the department.
What are emerging or ongoing needs for future TA training on the issues of equity, diversity, and Indigenous content in your department?
LB: The Geography Department is unique for having both a natural science (physical geography) branch and a social science (human geography) branch. An ongoing challenge for our TA training is to design workshops that are relevant to the challenges faced by graduate students across the physical-human spectrum. Next year, we will continue working towards integrating these diverse training needs into our workshops, specifically designing activities around challenges faced in physical geography classrooms.
JH: I would really like to see TA training on equity, diversity, and Indigenous content be supported by introducing it during the Department’s annual Graduate Student Orientation. TA training is also about how to approach conversations with peers both within and outside the space of the classroom. It is about research, about how to ask questions, and it is about collaboration and practicing solidarity. I think there is a need for more of a conversation with students and TAs about the connection between their work and Indigenous Peoples, territories, and contexts.
The CTLT Aboriginal Initiatives team is seeking opportunities to work with Departmental TA Coordinators from across campus in 2014/2015 to develop TA training streams for creating a respectful and productive classroom environment, particularly in teaching and discussing Indigenous issues and issues related to cultural and social diversity. Please contact Amy Perreault, Strategist, Aboriginal Initiatives, at email@example.com and/or Hanae Tsukada, Classroom Climate and Educational Resource Developer, at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or interest in collaborating a TA training program.
Reference: Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.