“Some of us go to grad school with the idea that we want to do research,” says Laura Boutwell, a Ph.D. student at Virginia Polytechnic University. “I went to grad school knowing that I wanted to teach.”
Boutwell is one of the faces a student typically sees during lectures, heading discussion sections and grading papers—she’s a graduate teaching assistant. Like most TAs, her job involves a lot of backstage work with the professors as well. Aside from leading discussions, TAs fact check professors’ lectures to make sure they’re current, create and grade exams and occasionally guest lecture.
Prior to attending Virginia Tech, Boutwell taught English as a second language in a community college and was an adjunct professor in social work. She chose to be a teaching assistant for all four years of pursuing her doctorate in sociology even though her graduate program only required at least one. “Teaching assistantship deepened my passion for teaching,” Boutwell said.
“There are significant challenges in graduate school of balancing coursework, assistantship, school and the rest of your life,” Boutwell admitted. But those same challenges made her more understanding of her students and their own challenges as undergraduates. The challenges she faced prompted her desire to model a balanced life for her students. It honed her skills as a teacher but also tailored the kind of teacher she wanted to be.
“Your life is bigger than this class,” she tells her students. “I want you to do well in class but also take care of yourself.” This approach, she believes, will serve as a better support for students.
Hands-on teaching is important in the education of graduate TAs. Boutwell describes her experience of leading discussions in women’s and gender studies as one of the best parts of being a teaching assistant, deepening her appreciation of the subject. “It allowed me to see the power of teaching students about a range of oppression, working with these oppressions and looking at social inequalities,” she said. “The applied part of sociology is what excites me.” Additionally, teaching assistantships are a great way for professors to mentor graduate students, Boutwell said.
Boutwell completed her bachelor’s degree at Hollins University and received her master’s degree in social work from Radford University. She is also pursuing a certificate in women’s and gender studies from Virginia Polytechnic University along with her doctorate.
“I hope to be as passionate about teaching 20 years from now as I am today,” says Boutwell, who will be joining the faculty at Bridgewater State University as a professor in social work this fall. In a few months, Boutwell will be one of those passionate, animated professors who will inspire the next generation of college students to pursue their own ambitions.