Winning Teachers and TAs Share Their Stories

May 30, 2012

While the facts we learn in school often fade from memory, an outstanding teacher stays with us forever. We remember the way they challenged us, surprised us, and changed the way we see the world. What makes a good teacher? There are many ingredients, from enthusiasm to openness to preparation. One thing Mailman teachers will tell you, is they can’t do their job nearly as well without the help of teaching assistants. And it’s not just grading papers. Talk to the TAs and you’ll understand that it takes an extraordinary commitment to do whatever it takes to help students master what can be very challenging material.

Drs. Leslie Roberts (left) and Tal Gross

Drs. Leslie Roberts (left) and Tal Gross

To provide a look at what makes Mailman teachers and TAs exceptional, four of the School’s finest—prizewinners who each were recently honored by their peers—shared their thoughts about everything from favorite classroom experiences to Van Halen, PowerPoint, and the power of “poop.”

Leslie F. Roberts, PhD, recipient of the 2011-2012 Teaching Excellence Award, leads classes in humanitarian assistance, water and sanitation, and methods to document rape and human rights abuses. He was recently in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, assisting a local NGO co-founded by a Mailman School student. In honoring Dr. Roberts, one student wrote that he “combined his unparalleled fieldwork experiences with a great deal of charm and humor to present the materials.”

Tal Gross, PhD, recipient of the 2011-2012 Early Career Teaching Award, leads classes in health economics and finance. He just completed his second year at the Mailman School. Previously, he taught at the University of Miami and MIT. A student commented that Dr. Gross “treats students as future colleagues and teaches with that in mind; he’s tough but respectful of other opinions.”

Joanna Eisman, MPH, recipient of a 2011-2012 Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award, is a recent MPH graduate in SMS and currently is Program Coordinator, New York City-Long Island-Lower-Tri-County Public Health Training Center at the Mailman School. A student wrote that Joanna was “seriously, the best, friendliest, brightest, most accessible TA I’ve ever had.”

Carolyn Herzig, MS, recipient of a 2011-2012 Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award, is a doctoral student in epidemiology and is interested in the molecular epidemiology of infectious disease, particularly as it relates to antimicrobial resistance. “Carolyn is an excellent educator,” wrote one student. “She takes the time to explain a concept various ways until I understand it.”


How did you get into teaching?

LR:  I started out as a high school physics teacher, which was very useful. High school students are brutal—really intense and in your face. By contrast, when I teach really motivated, clever graduate students, it is a delight.

Research is important for keeping my mind fresh and I think it’s important for creating opportunities for the students. But the lure of teaching is what brought me to and keeps me at Columbia. I can probably do more good for the world by teaching young people how to set up surveillance systems, conduct surveys, and evaluate programs.  

TG: I started out as a TA at MIT when I was a grad student. I TA’d for graduate labor economics and I TA’d for a couple of undergraduate classes. It was a great way to dip my toes in the water. I discovered that I enjoyed teaching. If I hadn’t discovered that then I might have chosen a different path. In fact I model the way I teach after my MIT thesis advisor, whose class I TA’d. He integrated theory, empirical work and anecdotes. 

What is taking a class with you like?

TG: I don’t know, I‘ve never done it! [Laughs] In terms of format, I give one three-hour lecture a week for the health economics class. It’s a long lecture, but I mix it up. I tell some stories, we do exercises, I try to focus on aspects of the material and I think that keeps people attentive. I have handouts. I am anti-PowerPoint. The handouts have graphs and figures and tables from papers and extracts of research paper.

I give out one illustrating the moral hazard problem. It’s a contract rider for the rock band Van Halen. It says “Warning: absolutely no brown M&Ms.” Basically, the band couldn’t observe whether the venue operators were setting up the stage properly or not and so they set up this system as a way to monitor them. If there were brown M&Ms, then there might be a larger problem. In a sense, it’s a solution to a moral hazard problem, or a way of dealing with it.

LR: I start with the assumption that students can’t endure more than about 40 minutes of my lecturing. I almost always intersperse studies or class exercises punctuated with a lecture component in chunks.

I always try to remember that on almost any subject there’s always someone in the room smarter than me. I think that’s very useful, especially when we’re talking about disease issues and there are physicians sitting in the room. If you’re always thinking there’s a valuable resource that needs to chime in then it keeps you from going on too much. 

I think the key to being a good teacher is getting all of your guards down and allowing yourself to be yourself. So when I talk about water and sanitation I don’t talk about being exposed to poor sanitation. I talk about people ingesting feces. Or people eating poop. That works for me in my style and I’m sure it wouldn’t work for others.  

What’s the most rewarding part of teaching?

LR: The most rewarding part is absolutely seeing my own students in the field years later. So, for example, I’m here in Burundi. I was spending the last few days in a hospital in a very rural area and one of my former students, a Columbia graduate, is there working as a government fellow for a year. It is simply inspirational to see these young, hard-working, motivated folks out working to spread compassion. And I get to teach them early on. That’s just so cool.

TG: I learn by teaching. I’ll give you an example. One of the things we talk about in class is how hospitals have to deal with problems, financial problems in particular. After class, physicians taking my class have come up to me and told me how they’ve had to deal with these issues. It’s always awesome to get their perspective. I’ve had MDs and also people who’ve done internships and had experience throughout the healthcare sector and they’ve all had something to say. There’s often one part of the course that speaks to everyone’s experience.

Joanna Eismanr


What was the commitment like? Sounds like a big responsibility.

CH: I was taking my qualifying exams this year so for me it was all about balancing everything. One thing I liked is my schedule was varied every day. Part of TAing is you get a lot of questions—or I hope you get a lot of questions because that means the students are really interested in the material. A lot of these concepts are difficult to explain by email so I would frequently meet with students.

In the computer labs, the TAs walked the students through how to obtain different measures of association, how to test for confounding, how to evaluate interaction, and most importantly, I think, how to interpret your results.

JE: I was TAing and had a full course load and had a part-time job. And then I continued through the spring. Between TAing and the other job, I was working 40 hours a week. Time management played a really, really important part in getting me through this year. At times I’m not sure how I actually did it. Every week I did the same work that the students did. I reread all the chapters, I reread all the journal articles. The [student] papers are 20 pages a piece. They’re not short and they do take a lot of time to grade and because the content changes for each student, they’re not all writing about the same thing. 

Carolyn Herzig

What is the most rewarding part of TAing?

JE: My favorite part was sitting down with the groups each week and reviewing their questions and explaining what had just been taught and getting a sense of how they felt as things were progressing. I felt like I was connecting with them and helping them through it. And not just the ones who really love their group and they bring pizza to their meetings. I also took my time to read everything and give each of them really detailed comments. My TA had done that for me. I felt like I owed it to them to continue doing it.

CH: Being able to work with and help students. The students here are fantastic. It was really nice to get the feedback and to know that I was able to be helpful but what was most rewarding was working with students who were motivated and intent on learning the material. And then talking with students during the following semester and hearing about the progress they had made with their own research.