When Jonilda Bahja began her doctoral work at Virginia Tech, she brought with her prior experience as a graduate teaching assistant and received an assistantship at the university. But she wanted to find support and resources as well as fellow students who shared her passion for teaching.

She found all of those things in the Graduate Academy for Teaching Excellence, known as VT GrATE. “Once I read about the academy, I decided this is the group I want to join and learn from,” said Bahja, a fellow in the academy and a Ph.D. student in the business information technology program. “I’ve been with VT GrATE for several years now.”

Sarah Plummer, a Ph.D. candidate in the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought program, came to Virginia Tech with teaching experience from her master’s program and a stint as an instructor at Bluefield State College, but she wanted to improve as a teacher. She said the fellows offered the support and mentorship she sought, and she admired their confidence. “I wanted to be that. I wanted to have that,” she said.

Johnny C. Woods, who recently defended his dissertation in the higher education program, said he had experience in higher education administration and had worked in research, but he needed teaching experience to be a well-rounded academic. “The academy provided me the opportunity as a student where I could be a mentored, where I could grow, where I could develop my own teaching voice, and my own teaching efficiencies,” he said.

Sara Lamb, a Ph.D. candidate in the architecture and design research program and academy fellow, said the student-run academy also offers graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) an opportunity to join a community that spans departments and degree programs.

“This is such a cool opportunity to connect with people like me across disciplines,” Lamb said. “Some of the value is that in a less formal setting, you can get some exposure to what other graduate students are studying or different approaches and teaching. I'm able to learn without actually taking a class. I can learn more about what others are interested in through just being a part of the group and showing up to the events.”

Bahja, Plummer, Woods, and Lamb are among the more than 1,300 graduate students serve as GTAs across Virginia Tech’s colleges and campuses. Many are instructors of record, meaning they teach classes, while others support the education process in other ways. As VT GrATE fellows, they provide support, workshops, demonstrations, mentorship, and office hours for GTAs across the university. That is one of the key objectives of the academy, they said.

The academy grew out of a discussion among GTAs and Karen DePauw, former dean of the Graduate School, about enhancing the knowledge, skills, and abilities of GTAs beyond the workshop courses they must take when they begin their assistantships. Founding members sough to build a community of people who had similar career goals, who dealt with similar experiences in classrooms, and who wanted the chance to learn from each other.

VT GrATE has three membership levels: member, for those new to teaching; associate, for GTAs with at least a semester of experience; and fellow, for those who have more than two semesters of teaching experience or curriculum development and outstanding teaching evaluations.

Students may apply to join the academy in the fall or the spring. Since 2014, hundreds of GTAs have been members, associates, and fellows. Academy members also participate in the GTA Workshop, a required semester-long Graduate School course for all GTAs.

Office hours, teach-ins, and other workshops are open to GTAs across the university, regardless of whether they are members.

Woods said the academy fellows take their roles seriously. “We try to do our best as fellows,” he said. “For example, we run office hours all the time to make sure that students who have needs come forward and we are able to support them as much as we can.” He noted that prior to the pandemic shift to online instruction, office hours were in-person. The group quickly to Zoom sessions and have continued to hold those weekly this academic year.

Bahja said academy members at every level participate in planning, provide ideas for programs and workshops, take part in teach-ins events, and conduct workshops. “It doesn't matter which level of membership students are or their level of teaching experience, they are welcome and encouraged to conduct workshops with us for other GTAs in campus or to reach out to us to put together different workshops for them.”

Plummer said academy members pay close attention to the needs GTAs report and the challenges they face, such as the university’s rapid change to online instruction in spring 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic raged across the nation. Woods said the group surveyed GTAs across the university to find out what they needed and then developed workshops and office hour conversations based on survey responses and conversations with peers. “We are not one of those organizations that tries to plan for people without including them in the process,” he said. 

Bahja said that when GTAs wanted help with classroom management and teaching, the academy stepped in and offered workshops and other sessions to help student instructors with strategies and advice. Teaching 101 workshop was developed this way and now is a part of the suite of seminars the Graduate School offers GTAs during the required GTA workshop each semester.

Figuring out what the GTA community needs and developing supports and solutions is a hallmark of the Academy, Bahja and Plummer noted. “The beautiful part of it is that we are constantly shaping ourselves as part of the Academy based on the needs of the students each semester” Bahja said. “We hold our main events, but always conduct additional workshops that might be much needed at that particular semester.” As an example, the Academy offered sessions on flexible learning and teaching associated with the hybrid post-pandemic mode of instruction. “Every semester I see something different,” she added.

Plummer also noted that the Academy recognizes that not every GTA is an instructor of record and offers support for those in other roles. She wants that to continue and to expand to address nontraditional teaching roles graduate student may find themselves assuming, or may be asked to take on in their careers after graduation. “I think we’re moving in that direction.”

Bahja said the Academy has grown since its inception, and as fellows graduate, new ones are named to continue the work. The fellows said they want to increase the Academy’s visibility among faculty members so they can make sure GTAs are aware of it and know they can join or reach out to members at any time. Members also want to raise their visibility among students across the university’s campuses. Bahja noted that is happening, and they welcome more interaction in the next academic year. 

Graduate School Dean Aimée Surprenant said the Academy offers "a significant value-add for Virginia Tech graduate students who are engaged in or interested in teaching and learning" and the workshops and resources are useful for new and experienced teachers and GTAs. "But, the hidden gem of this program is the community of practice and the mentorship and fellowship it offers," she said. "This supportive community means that GTAs always have someone to rely on for advice, support, guidance, and companionship."

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