Teaching the Teacher: Ethical Issues in Graduate Student Teaching

By Kuther, Tara L. | College Student Journal, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Teaching the Teacher: Ethical Issues in Graduate Student Teaching


Kuther, Tara L., College Student Journal


Recent surveys have indicated that many psychology graduate students perceive themselves as inadequately prepared to teach undergraduate courses. Graduate student instructors often face ethical conflicts between their competence to teach and their need for funding. Many experience difficulties balancing the multiple roles of instructor, student, and scholar. Departmental support and training for teaching is essential to aid graduate students' transitions to the undergraduate classroom and to faculty roles.

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Recent surveys have suggested that graduate education does not prepare students for faculty roles (Golde & Dore, 2001; Meyers, Reid, & Quina, 1998; Smallwood, 2001). Few graduate programs provide extensive training in teaching, yet doctoral students often are thrust into the undergraduate classroom to sink or swim (Darling & Dewey, 1990; Lowman & Mathie, 1993; Meyers & Prieto, 2000). The present essay and illustrative cases examine ethical conflicts that graduate student instructors are likely to encounter concerning their teaching competence and the difficulty of balancing multiple roles.

Questions of Competence

Many graduate students struggle with the conflict between their teaching expertise and the need for funding that teaching provides (Kuther, 2002). Consider the following case:

   Jean receives a call from the department
   chair. Could she teach a section
   of Psychology of Personality this
   semester? Jean wonders to herself,
   "The semester starts next week! I
   haven't taught the course before, but
   it shouldn't be difficult because it's
   a survey course. I could probably
   wing it. But then again, I've only
   taught Introductory Psychology and
   spent a ton of time on it. Can I do
   this? I really need the money." Jean
   agrees to teach the course.

When considering course assignments, instructors must determine whether they are competent to provide classroom instruction because educators have an ethical responsibility to promote the welfare of students and to not engage in activities that may harm them (Kitchener, 1992; National Education Association, 1977). Harm may occur when a professor teaches without adequate preparation (Wilson, 1982).

Competence requires expertise in the subject matter. Doctoral training is expected to confer expertise in one's area of specialization, but graduate students often are asked to teach outside of their area of expertise, sometimes with as little lead time as a week. The student may need the funding, but may question whether he or she is prepared to teach a course in an unfamiliar area, especially if there is little time for preparation. Self-directed study is nearly always sufficient preparation for professors to teach an undergraduate course in a subarea not mastered in graduate school (Kitchener, 1992); however, when there is little lead time, it is unlikely that graduate students (or even more experienced instructors) can prepare adequately.

In addition to content familiarity, competence entails pedagogical knowledge and skill. Graduate education imparts expertise in content and methodology, but does not guarantee effectiveness in the classroom because most students receive little to no training in pedagogy (Cahn, 1994). Most graduate students learn about teaching through trial and error, in the classroom with their students as guinea pigs (Darling & Dewey, 1990). Pedagogical tasks to master include how to lecture, run a discussion, create a test, grade student work, advise students, and interact appropriately with students. Achieving a minimal level of competence in each of these duties requires a substantial commitment of time and mental resources. Students who make such a commitment to their teaching duties may risk their success in graduate school, highlighting a second common conflict that graduate student instructors face.

Balancing Professional Responsibilities with Personal Development

   "How am I going to get it all done? … 

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