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Teaching assistants at the School of Life Sciences and Environmental Technology: ‘utility players’ for the teaching team

Teaching assistants Iris, Fran and Kelly (from left to right)

Since last year, teaching assistants have been a key part of the landscape at the School of Life Sciences and Environmental Technology. Iris van Vliet, Kelly Waterman, and Fran Ortega talk about their role between the students and lecturers.

Iris, Kelly, and Fran are all former School of Life Sciences and Environmental Technology students. Kelly graduated at the end of last year and started work in January as a teaching assistant on the Biology and Medical Laboratory Research programme (BML). This was a new role for the programme, so Kelly initially had to find out for herself what exactly it entailed. She did this with the help of another former BML student and two current students.

“If a lecturer was ill, then I would take the tutor group,” says Kelly. “When each of the lessons in the lab had to be held twice because of the pandemic, I took on some of the lessons. My work involves preparing lab journals and preparations for lessons in the lab. And if a student has missed a lesson, they can email me to arrange when they can catch up.”

Iris van Vliet

Iris, too, has a variety of duties as a teaching assistant at Chemistry. “I’m a kind of utility player for the team of lecturers. My first task was checking work, but because I am now showing what I am capable of, I am getting tasks that are more and more enjoyable. I help with guest lectures, I’m on the PR team, and I am involved with internationalisation.” The people who used to be her lecturers are now her colleagues. “They really appreciate it when I come up with ideas and the fact that I bring a fresh approach.”

Fran is a former student and now a teaching assistant at Environmental Science for Sustainable Energy and Technology (ESSET). He has close contacts with all the lecturers on the programme. “Whenever I ask if there’s anything I can do to help, the answer is always ‘yes’,” says Fran. “Even though I used to be a student, they treat me as a colleague. They involve me in their discussions, I feel as though I count.”

Fran Ortega

Career in education
After graduating, Fran made a conscious decision to stay in the Netherlands. “I had seen a few vacancies in Spain, but the conditions there are not so good”. The vacancy at Avans arose at just the right time for him. His work is varied and although he had never considered a career in education, he very much enjoys it. “I now feel comfortable when facing the class.”

Kelly, too, never harboured any ambitions to go into education, but despite this, she found herself teaching shortly after graduating. “It was quite nerve-wracking at first. I prepared thoroughly, and thought that I should have to be able to answer whatever questions the students asked. And apart from that, I did exactly what other lecturers always do.” What she has noticed is that students regard her as a kind of halfway house between the lecturers and the students. “They find it easy to talk with me.”

Personal story
Iris noticed the same thing. “If students know you, they find it easy to approach you. For example, they may ask for some quick feedback as you pass each other in the corridor.” She found standing in front of a class of thirty students for the first time daunting. “But they have enough respect to listen. If a student comes to me with a problem that I cannot resolve, I refer them to a lecturer.” She has also experienced students coming to her with details of their personal lives. In such cases, I try to refer them to the appropriate party – to a coach, for example. Because you have a lot of contact with the students in your tutor group, you sometimes hear tales of real hardship.”

Kelly Waterman

Gaining experience
Kelly now has plans to return to education at some point, “but I would first like to get more involved with forensic research.” That is not currently easy, as organisations such as the Netherlands Forensic Institute have a recruitment freeze. “And it’s not easy to join the police either.”

Iris also viewed education as “something for later on in my career. Thanks to this temporary position, I was able to see whether it really suited me.” She intends to starts a Master’s in September. “I did not fancy doing it during the pandemic, as I would prefer to be part of student life and live in lodgings. And after that I would like to gain experience in the professional arena. Lecturers on my programme were often able to draw on their own experience to explain why the lecture material was so important.

Appreciation
The teaching assistants feel greatly appreciated by lecturers. “Especially during the pandemic, when they had so much extra work to do,” explains Iris. This was something that chemistry lecturer Paula Contreras Carballada had to face as well. “Because only half the usual number of people were allowed in the labs, we had twice as much work and we had to spend twice as much time in the labs. I thought that the quality of my teaching was suffering as a result, so I had to raise the matter.” It was then that the teaching assistants starting taking the lessons.

The lecturer had in the past already used older students to supervise groups of second-year students. “It gave them an opportunity to practise their competencies.” She certainly sees added value in having teaching assistants. “I involve Iris with everything I do. She has a fresh approach and sometimes asks why we can’t do certain things differently. That’s very heartening.”

Some students prefer to listen to a student rather than to a lecturer, as Contreras Carballada has noticed. “That can open doors. In addition, Iris can use her own experience when talking to students. She knows what aspects students are assessed on and she can share that with them.” In principle, any student can work as a teaching assistant. “However, they have to enjoy working with students, be committed to sharing knowledge, and to possess the necessary knowledge as well.”

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