Once a year, upwards of 100 people gather in the ACES Library Heritage Room to celebrate the excellent work of our college teaching assistants. This Celebration of College Teaching is the culmination of the Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning Teaching Certificate Program. TAs who have prioritized the development of their teaching are rewarded a certificate by the Dean of the Graduate College, Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, in a joyful ceremony.
Like most aspects of our semester since the onset of COVID-19, this year’s ceremony will take on a very different form. Participating TAs will receive digital certificates and programs, complete with links to congratulatory remarks from CITL Director Michel Bellini and Chodzko-Zajko. Heritage Room or laptop screen, we are excited to celebrate the TAs that help make academic life at the University of Illinois so rich and vibrant.
To earn a spot at the ceremony, TAs participate in one or more of five different certificate tracks. These tracks serve as helpful guides for TAs pursuing excellence in teaching.
“We design the program to be checkpoints of things we think good TAs would be doing anyway,” Specialist in Education Lucas Anderson said. “So it serves as encouragement to go just a little bit beyond what’s required of you to be a TA—to do a little bit more in the realm of good teaching and learning.”
Our program began decades ago with the Graduate Teaching Certificate. This certificate requires TAs to undergo pre-semester training and teach for two semesters. They must also undergo a teaching observation, which is followed by a debrief and reflection.
Beyond the Instructor and Course Evaluation System (ICES) traditionally used at the end of the term, TAs pursuing this certificate collect what we call “informal early feedback” from their students once each semester.
“Buried in there is the notion that it’s a lot more important to check in with students while you can still do something about the class than to wait until ICES comes,” Anderson said.
To serve graduate students with limited teaching experience, we offer the Certificate in Foundations of Teaching. It is important that all graduate students have the opportunity to explore their interest in teaching, whether or not they hold a teaching position.
To earn this certificate, students teach a mock lesson under observation. This program also includes in-depth reading and writing to develop a theoretical understanding of their own teaching. Their work culminates in writing a teaching philosophy statement—a formidable task, Anderson says.
“It’s an intensely personal document that’s only allowed to be one or two pages, in which you’re supposed to tell the audience how you think learning works,” he explained. “It’s a big challenge for them to do.”
For TAs who have set their sights on one-day becoming professors, we offer the Dr. Sanra J. Finley Teacher Scholar Certificate. Behind this certificate is the philosophy that the TA should treat their teaching and research with equal rigor. TAs are pushed to develop a robust pedagogical theory underneath their teaching practice.
TAs seeking to innovate how their class operates by employing some educational technology may pursue the Certificate in Technology-Enhanced Teaching. Lastly, we offer the Citizen Scholar Certificate for anyone who teaches a service-learning course. Across the five certificates, we award between 115 and 130 each year.
After his mentor Sandra Finley’s retirement, Anderson took over the planning of the celebration and the general oversight of the program. A former TA himself, he is dedicated and well-equipped in guiding TAs along their teaching journeys.
The most significant manifestation of his work in TA development is the pre-semester training program. Offered once in August and again in January, this two-day conference provides TAs with a wealth of knowledge through a colorful selection of training sessions.
“We make sure they learn about fair grading. We make sure they learn how to design a lesson plan, write learning objectives, and interact with students,” Anderson said. “Beyond that, they get to choose the aspects of teaching that they want to learn about.”
The rest of his time goes to the Certificate Program, where he plays an active role in helping students meet the necessary checkpoints. Anderson juggles class observations, feedback system development, and teaching philosophy statement counsel. He lends a hand in interpreting and addressing feedback and offers several of the workshops that are eligible for the Graduate Teaching Certificate.
Altogether, his day-to-day work facilitates the steps that lead a TA to a certificate. He holds a deep appreciation for the spirited scholars he oversees.
“I get to work almost exclusively with motivated, intelligent people,” Anderson said. “First of all, they’re grad students at the University of Illinois, so they’ve all worked really hard to get here. It’s some combination of being intelligent and being hardworking, and it’s usually both.”
We are thrilled to spotlight our outstanding TAs in our 21st Celebration of College Teaching. While they may not hear our applause this year, we are as proud as ever of their powerful contributions as leaders in our learning community.
To learn more about earning a certificate, visit https://citl.illinois.edu/citl-101/teaching-learning/teaching-certificates.