Advice For New Graduate Student Teaching Assistants (TAs)
Recently, a graduate student at my university asked me what advice I would give to new TAs. Wow, I thought, I have totally neglected this essential group of people on the higher ed landscape.
TAs are really, really important. They teach well over 50% of classes on most campuses. They are also attending their own classes, doing research, and writing a thesis or a dissertation. They are seriously busy people. And miserably underpaid.
Colleges and universities rely on them to teach the so-called service courses, such as first-year writing, elementary and intermediate languages, and popular core classes. They also facilitate discussion in the recitation or discussion sections that accompany many lectures, making up the third hour of a three-credit course, for example. Some very advanced graduate students may eventually get their own seminar in their field, but this is the exception, not the rule.
TAs are not adjuncts. TAs are still pursuing a degree and so are enrolled as full-time students. Adjuncts have their degree in hand and are either looking for full-time work or teaching for a bit of extra cash while doing something else entirely. Both are severely undercompensated, usually earning about $2,500-3,000 for a 12-15-week class that they have to prepare for, lead, and grade papers. It takes hours a week to do it well. Both of these groups make up the inexpensive labor force campuses rely on. Without them, the complexion of course offerings would have to change dramatically. I can’t even imagine what it would look like.
So, if you are about to start teaching for the first very time as a TA, like my new friend who posed the question to me this week, here’s some advice I would offer:
- Read up on college pedagogy. Especially if your university doesn’t offer a course for you in it. I was lucky enough to be able to take an extraordinary course in teaching college-level students while teaching my very first German course. If you don’t have that option, you can still learn a great deal by reading around to discover the principles and practices that make a classroom engaging and exciting. Cult of Pedagogy has some really interesting articles.
- Attend the new TA orientation, if offered at your school. If there isn’t one, see if you can start one next semester or next year based on the experiences you are about to have in the classroom.
- Be in close touch with the faculty member who leads your course if you are teaching a section, discussion group, recitation, etc. If they haven’t already scheduled it, see if they would hold a weekly meeting to discuss material and what’s going on in the classroom.
- Do a check-in with your students within three or four weeks to see if they are learning, engaging with the materials, and enjoying the course. You can do this one-on-one, in a group, or via a survey, or all three. This will let your students know you care and will provide you with constructive feedback early enough that you can put it into practice before mid-terms. Waiting until the end of the term means you can’t make changes in time to make a difference that semester. Some students will be very helpful, but don’t be surprised if some are just rude in their responses. Your skin will thicken over time, hopefully.
- Become part of a group of other new TAs who can offer one another ideas and support. Meeting regularly will give you a solid base of support in your new teaching venture.
- Take a look at some TED talks or videos of professors and note what you emulate and what you don’t. Video yourself teaching and talk about it with someone you trust.
- Create a weekly schedule for yourself that provides time for preparing for the class, teaching it, and grading papers/exams/problem sets. Then insert your own classes, reading, research, and writing. (Don’t forget to add time to eat, sleep, and socialize.) Adjust the schedule as needed throughout the semester.
- Know that your students will give you authority over the classroom as long as you act with authority. Don’t be cocky, arrogant, or disingenuous. At the same time, don’t be shy or insecure in your behaviors. Students can smell those characteristics a mile away.
- In this age of heightened sensitivities about trigger warnings, consult with your college officials on their policies, and follow your gut.
- Know FERPA. Do not give out any information about any of your students to anyone who doesn’t have a legitimate educational reason for knowing. That means that you mustn’t share grades or GPA with parents. If parents contact you, refer them to the Parent and Family Office or to the Dean’s office of your college.
- Know Title IX. If nothing else, read the Dear Colleague Letter. And never, ever touch a student. If you hear of inappropriate student-on-student or faculty-on-student contact, report it immediately to your school’s Title IX officer. This is no joke. The processes around Title IX complaints can be gruesome, and lives have been ruined.
- Teach your students what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. Most students think they know what it is and how to paraphrase and cite appropriately, but making sure they really know what it looks like in practice will serve you and them well.
- Finally, while appreciating the hard work, the challenges, the dangers, and the difficulties of teaching, try to enjoy it. You can change lives for the better in your classroom. Giving to students makes your life better. It never gets old, believe me. Giving to them is like giving yourself a gift every day. They are truly worth it. Well, most of them are anyway. 🙂
Thank you, V!