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What piece(s) of advice would you give to new TAs?


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BE NICE, especially with grades. Don't give any grades you feel you do not want yourself. It's sometimes easy to be consumed by the new powers, trust me.

I think reinhard means to not give a student bad grades purely because they're a "spoiled little brat who veers discussion off-topic" or something!  However, I do think that the professor would catch on to little Johnny receiving an F when he was doing C-quality work ... I would hope so, at least!

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This is definitely field-specific and also depends on where you're seeking employment. A number of TT jobs I applied for this year asked for a teaching portfolio, evidence of teaching excellence or ef

I also have to disagree with NicholasCage's comment.  90-95 percent of academic institutions in the United States are teaching-focused institutions; therefore, most of us will end up there.  Your teac

You're going to have bad days. You're going to have bad days a lot at first, but even after you've been teaching for 5 or 10 years, you're going to have bad days then, too. Just accept them and move o

  • I use a binder for each section I'm teaching, as a previous poster mentioned, but instead of lecture notes, I have the course roster and a page for each student. I add their rubrics and research proposals into it as I get them, too. Anytime I meet with a student, I turn to their page and take a few notes. Students love it when you remember what they said, and you'll quickly find that even though you think you know your students' names, you're never going to remember which student asked for what in office hours, unless you write it down. I also do my attendance on paper in this, and keep copies of the syllabus and assignment sheets.
  • Don't let them sucker you. Students will have trouble adjusting to college (especially in the first semester), but when a student comes up with sob story after sob story, refer them to the appropriate campus offices (disability services, counseling, etc.), because if you keep accommodating them without documentation, you're going to run into issues.
  • This is going to sound petty, but don't loan books (or anything, really) to students. I let one of mine use a very expensive Greek history book my first semester teaching because the library didn't have a copy, and it came back with creased pages, a few stains, and a torn book jacket. Suffice it to say, it made it very difficult to be objective on his paper. 
  • When you're meeting with students, leave your office door open. I'd say leave it open, even if they ask for you to close it. Grad students are vulnerable to false accusations, and I know that most students would never do anything of that nature, but the wife of caesar must be beyond repute, right? (This is a tip I got from my supervisor.)
  • If you're meeting with a student and you're concerned about their reaction to what you're going to say (i.e. if you're accusing them of plagiarism or something of that nature), it's ok to have a colleague with you "grading/reading/sleeping" in the corner, so that there's a third party witness. I did this when I had to confront a student about falsifying rough drafts.
  • Don't assume that students can read, not even at an SLAC. Give your assignment a few different ways: verbally, online, and in paper. They still won't read or listen, but at least you can cover your bases.
  • Monitor your international students' progress in the first few days of the course. Make it a point to talk to them and try to get a feel for their ability level in English, especially if you're teaching an English course. This really helped me my first semester, because I discovered that a student had skipped the required pre-req for international students to get into first-year composition, and had I not talked to the department, I probably would have had to fail her. (She got a very low grade the second semester, even with that pre-req...) At the PhD and MA level, most of us are not equipped to deal with TESOL issues, so become friends with the professors in your department who are certified, and get all the resources you can, if you need them.
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  • 4 weeks later...

There's a lot of great advice here. The only thing I would add is that I learned that you have to let go of wanting the students to like you. Of course you want them to respect you and to create an environment where they feel safe to express themselves and that they're being evaluated and graded fairly. That said, be careful of trying to be so laid back that they lose sight that the TA/student relationship is a strictly professional one.

 

Be friendly, yes, but make it clear that when in the classroom you are not their peer (despite your being a student as well) but their instructor. I certainly use humor a great deal in my classes, but I work to set a disciplined tone from the beginning. 

 

As much as it may seem that they want the freedom from boundaries, I don't believe this to be true. Not that student feedback is the most reliable barometer of one's effectiveness, but I have found I have gotten the best feedback from the classes from whom I least expected it, i.e., the classes where I tended to have to take a more hard line approach.

 

Keep in mind that no matter how affable you try to be and how invested you are in their success, there are going to be students who don't like you. We've all had those teachers that we talked about behind their backs. You're going to be that teacher to at least some of your students. Don't sweat it. It comes with the job.

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Oh, and one other thing. If you don't get a question and you don't know the answer, don't try to fake it. They can see totally see through that. It's perfectly acceptable to say you don't know the answer, but that you'll look into it. They'll appreciate the follow through much more that your winging it and potentially adding to their confusion.

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  • 1 month later...

I have a question for you guys:

 

Suppose you are TAing for a science-related lab.  What would you recommend for encouraging class participation?  I realize that much of the interest of the students I am taching is not in my control.  Though, it would be nice to manage to get at least one or two answers to open-ended question, maybe to encourage discussion.

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When I TA'ed a science lab, I didn't really do many class-wide activities. In some sessions, I might give a short 5 minute introduction to some important things they might need to know for the lab (how to use a piece of equipment or safety warnings etc.). Otherwise, I chose to interact on small groups by going around to each lab station and seeing what each group is up to. Sometimes when I come up, they already have questions for me and I try to get them to figure out the answer by asking them questions starting with things I think they might already know and usually they can reason out what to do. I always try to avoid just saying what to do--sometimes they might narrow it down to two possible options and if it's safe/practical, I just tell them to try both and see what works better. Other times, they might not have questions for me so I ask them what they are doing so that I can make sure they understand the material and that they are able to explain their reasons for their actions.

 

I should note that in this particular lab, there were 8 experiments going on at once and about 24 or so students in 12 groups of 2 (they rotate throughout the semester). So, there really was not a lot in common between the entire class at once which was why we didn't really do class-wide activities and stuck with small groups instead.

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TakeruK,

 

Thank you for the information.  That is likely going to be the format for our own lab, as well.  My interaction is going to be minimal in terms of actual lecturing.  I will be doing lots of demonstrating of equipment before they use it, however.  The students are given a formal lab report guideline sheet, which surprised me, because we all had a bound style guide book that we had to adhere to.

 

It seems that my concerns about keeping the interest of students, upon further reflection, are rather unfounded.  They will be so focused on getting their project done that there will not be much time for sitting around and listening to someone talk about things.  I have ample experience helping small groups of students for years, so this should be no different.

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TakeruK,

 

Thank you for the information.  That is likely going to be the format for our own lab, as well.  My interaction is going to be minimal in terms of actual lecturing.  I will be doing lots of demonstrating of equipment before they use it, however.  The students are given a formal lab report guideline sheet, which surprised me, because we all had a bound style guide book that we had to adhere to.

 

It seems that my concerns about keeping the interest of students, upon further reflection, are rather unfounded.  They will be so focused on getting their project done that there will not be much time for sitting around and listening to someone talk about things.  I have ample experience helping small groups of students for years, so this should be no different.

 

Cool :) At my last school, we switched to formal lab report guideline sheet for the first year physics labs but kept the bound lab notebook (i.e. same thing as a "real" scientist would use) for 2nd years and above. It's much much easier to mark lab report worksheets (since it's all the same style and the students simply fill in the boxes with the numbers they have to measure/calculate) and marking speed is important for large first year physics classes (thousands of students). However, at the 2nd year and above level (tens of students), it makes more sense to start training them in how to keep a proper lab notebook!

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Not touching the teaching-isn't-valuable-for-hiring argument.

 

That said, if you get the sense that teaching is going to be part of your hiring evaluation, keep a teaching journal that allows you to analyze what you've done over the semester, what worked, what didn't, what changes you'll implement, what things you've done that are new/original (or seem to be), and why you chose to do the things you do. At the end of the first semester, write a teaching philosophy statement and, at the end of each semester, tweak it with what you've learned.

 

If your field offers pedagogy theory and methodology studies, keep an eye on it to some extent. Eyeball the abstracts on new journal articles about pedagogy in your field, if nothing else. The more teaching oriented the field, the more these pedagogy theories should support your teaching philosophy in your teaching philosophy statement.

 

I wouldn't go totally crazy and put as much effort into this as you would your research, but do spend a few hours per semester reflecting on your teaching with an eye toward writing that teaching philosophy statement that some job openings might ask for.

 

Keep a copy of all your syllubi and assignments that you develop in some way, for future reference. Make notes on why you developed the syllabus and assignments the way you did, why you developed the grading the way you did. If you assisted a professor rather than taught your own course, make those notes about why you believe the prof developed the syllabus/assignments in a particular way and why these ways were good/bad ideas, and what you might do differently.

 

Like I said, a few hours per semester, not per week. Be casual about it, other than a teaching philosophy statement and your CV. How much this will help you depends entirely on you, your field, and your goals.

 

Keep an eye out for pedagogy publication and presentation opportunities, as well. In some fields, you shouldn't bother because they're stuck on Shaw's idea that those who can do, those who can't teach. Other fields, this can be a great place to get yourself out there.

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  • 8 months later...

Not-So-Obvious Teaching Assistant Advice

 

There is so much good advice on this thread.   If you do not have a clear purpose or endpoint of your destination than every road sign is irrelevant.  There has to be a practical use that informs information.  Information does not inform itself.  We do it. So here is some advice that might help you find which advice is best for you.

 

For whom it my be worth, here is some advice that I've culled over the years as a graduate teaching assistant in the humanites. 

 

1. top of the list.  Have some clear vision of what kind of graduate teaching assistant you want to be.  Do you want to be liked by your students? Do you want to be engaging? Do you want to enlighten students? Do you want to be seen as authoritative? Do you want to just survive through as you focus more on reserach? If you are fortunate to have had amazing teachers as role models, what qualities do you want to incorporate into the vision you have of yourself as a teacher? Do you want to be loose and free, or does being more reserved work better for you? Do you want to have empathy for where students are in their intellectual journey or do you want to be able to teach to all students?

 

2. Have a clear vision of the kind of classroom environment you want to create (depends on subject area, sometimes).  Do you want more structure and "professional" enviroment? Or do you prefer something more informal?  What works best for your content area?  Do you want an active class, asking questions, engaged and speaking, or a class that is more focused and recpetive (not necessarily a bad thing for certain topic areas).

 

3. Have some clear vision of your ideal student.  Are they enaged? Do they laugh at your jokes? Are they comfortable sharing in class? Can they ask questions without fear of judgment? Does the ideal student respect others opinions in class?

 

4. Take action to make these visions a reality by working backwards from the vision: "If I want a more engaging classroom, what actions can I take to contribute to this?" "If I want to be respected by students, what actions can I take to make this a reality?" How should I relate to students if I want to contribute to creating an ideal student? etc...

 

Keeping in mind that you cannot ultimately control how students respond to you, if they like you, respect you, etc...but you can nonetheless be comitted and focused on achiveing your vision of becoming the teacher you want to be (if you have a clear idea if what that looks like for you). 

Edited by Jhiatus3
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  • 3 weeks later...

Not every student is going to understand, or adapt to, your teaching style. They are from diverse backgrounds. If one or two are lost in the material, you are not a failure. If half your class is even lost, depending on the subject, that may still be fine. I have other PhD friends who just started teaching and thought it was their fault their students did not understand the material. The students may need to learn new study strategies, or are missing foundation knowledge for the course.

 

There may be times you should re-hash and re-evaluate your lesson plan, or even find a way to condense or simplify the material. Perhaps it is a problem with your teaching style itself (in which case observation is awesome), but that is not the go-to rule. If the student asks for help (which will be incredibly rare) suggest campus resources to them, and meeting with you during office hours. It is not your job to make them succeed. That's theirs. 

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I assume that when people ask for materials, it's because they intend to consider them when reviewing applications and because they view those materials (and the qualifications upon which they are based) 

 

Unfortunately this is not always the case, and this doesn't just apply to teaching-related materials. Of course the commitee isn't going to act like it doesn't care about a certain aspect of an applicant's profile by not requiring certain materials. It's very unfair to applicants who put in so much work, but some parts of applications are either glazed over or not touched at all.

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  • 8 months later...

One thing I do with my students when I notice they're struggling is remind them that I'm available to answer any questions for them or help them with study tips either after class, during my office hours, via e-mail, or by appointment.  Not only does this assure your students that you're there for them, but it also covers your butt if a student complains that you didn't do anything to help them when you gave them numerous opportunities to get help.

Also scare the bejesus out of them the first day of class about plagiarism and cheating.  I don't know if you use Blackboard at all, but there's an option on there to have students submit their assignments via SafeAssign, which checks for plagiarism.  Reminding your students of that will (hopefully) tell them that you will know right away if they're cheating.  I've been an adjunct for three years and have never run into a plagiarism problem because of this.

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  • 9 months later...

I've done 5 semesters of teaching, and I think the most important thing I've learned is to stop giving opportunities for extra credit.

At first I thought extra-credit and make-up opportunities were a good thing; I want my students to learn and succeed as much as possible. I'm a quick and organized grader, so I don't mind a bit of extra work. I was trying to be compassionate and acknowledge that everyone makes mistakes.

However, I realized after my first semester that extra-credit is a terrible idea. Students use it as a crutch to not work as hard the first time around because they don't feel the consequences of their actions are real. They could be failing with one week before finals and still think "I'll just power through some extra credit to recoup."

Overall, it's not a fair strategy to good students or bad students. I've nixed it entirely.

My stage fright still hasn't gone away though...

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14 minutes ago, SailorMolly said:

I've done 5 semesters of teaching, and I think the most important thing I've learned is to stop giving opportunities for extra credit.

At first I thought extra-credit and make-up opportunities were a good thing; I want my students to learn and succeed as much as possible. I'm a quick and organized grader, so I don't mind a bit of extra work. I was trying to be compassionate and acknowledge that everyone makes mistakes.

However, I realized after my first semester that extra-credit is a terrible idea. Students use it as a crutch to not work as hard the first time around because they don't feel the consequences of their actions are real. They could be failing with one week before finals and still think "I'll just power through some extra credit to recoup."

Overall, it's not a fair strategy to good students or bad students. I've nixed it entirely.

My stage fright still hasn't gone away though...

Why not extra credit as part of the assignment and not some separate work? Recently my HWs had several requirements for a system we had to build, and then an extra component you could build for an extra 10-20%. You still have to complete and work hard on the assignments but if you work even harder you get more points for an assignment.

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  • Approach in-class lectures differently than student presentations, especially if you usually over-prepare to ease any public speaking anxiety. A good instructor and a high-achieving glossophobic student have different pragmatic goals, even if they cover the same content with identical slides/materials. Limit your focus on delivering a polished presentation which will likely magnify any minor mistakes and increase anxiety about how the audience is judging you. Otherwise, you'll just exhaust yourself with weekly lecture prep to try to improve a set of evaluations that isn’t really the point anymore. Instead, focus more on developing a lecturing style that fits you, your students, and course context. Allow yourself to mess up and learn to recover, explore different angles, etc.

 

  • Be appropriately relational with your students - brief and informational heads-up and short discussions help avoid disengagement. Learn names when you can. Engage with students who aren’t doing well in class early on while staying firm with policies and expectations. Be aware of attribution biases - try to view a student's poor/mediocre performance as something situational/environmental instead of something lacking in either them or you. Similarly, let students know about your situational/environmental limitations within reason. If your workload is overwhelming during a particular semester, let them know that feedback/grades may be returned a little later than you would like at times. If you’re trying a new activity/assignment, let them know and get feedback.
Edited by OhSoSolipsistic
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  • Give students opportunities to provide you with anonymous feedback throughout the semester. I passed around small blank pieces of paper and had students write any questions or provide feedback at the end of each seminar session. This allows you to catch any concerns early on and modify how you run your seminars accordingly. On a general note, be flexible and always willing to adapt to your students' needs and preferences.
  • Depending on your audience, simplify everything you know. I had to explain psychology concepts to a group of non-psychology students and it was quite difficult. If you are in this situation and know someone at the undergrad level who is not as familiar with the subject matter, ask for their advice on how understandable your lesson plan is (if you have that opportunity). I did not have this available to me, but I wish I did. With this, of course, I suggest planning your seminar in advance, not the night before.
  • Within your own focus and tolerance parameters, be as available as you can be. I had my TA email address on my phone and responded almost right away. It can be difficult, but you are there in an assistant/helper role, and students love it when TAs are super responsive.
  • Show up early for your seminars, not just on time. This gives you a chance to connect with the students more. I found it has helped "prime" me for running more engaging and successful seminars. 
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  • 2 weeks later...

Ok, I gave this matter a lot of thought and probably my suggestions are more for when you teach, especially your first courses. 

  • Organization
    • Plan ahead. Not only the readings, but the types of questions you want to elicit from chapters, the types of activities that would suit different learners, and a good balance of assessment opportunities. 
    • Yes, think about extra credit. In my case, they had to watch a movie and write a report connecting the movie with topics in class. It was a two-week window in the middle of the semester, right after the term exam (when they usually panic). 
    • Remember introverts and students with disabilities. You don't know what disabilities they have unless they want to share with you. In general, I plan ahead for possible ADHD and dyslexic students. For introverts, I use very small group discussions and online posting. 
    • Start your sessions with a recap and end them with a conclusion/take away.
    • You may need to change stuff in the syllabus. Give a week-notice. 
  • Your presence
    • You are a figure of authority, act like one (which doesn't mean to be dictatorial!). You are not their buddy. 
    • Dress appropriately. 
    • That said, be kind, don't be condescending. Listen to their questions and give everyone an opportunity to ask questions, disagree, and interact. 
    • Be on time, plan ahead if you are going to be absent (it is ok to have a conference).
    • Remember that you are a role-model on how to behave in the real world. Be available within your own parameters and teach them that you are not available 24/7. Teach how to write/respond to e-mails, how to address other people, how to politely disagree, etc. 
    • Don't be scared of silences. 
    • This may be a little controversial but don't be afraid of name-picking. I found this a very good way to learn names, to have students ready to contribute with class discussion, and to have students engage with each other. For example, if someone had been quiet for a while, I would ask "Sam, do you agree with John's point?" I've never had a complaint about this and I've always had good evaluations from professors about this because you kind of make sure that everyone chips in at some point. But I understand this depends a lot on your personality, your class size, and your students. 
  • Your content
    • Be prepared. Read, imagine possible questions, imagine possible answers. 
    • Acknowledge that you don't know everything, it is OK. Personally, I am very comfortable with the "I don't know that, I'll happy to look it up, would you send me a reminder so I don't forget?" I was surprised that my highest score in students' evaluations was... subject matter knowledge! 
    • Be ready to give a lecture in case people did not read. ALWAYS have a plan B. ALWAYS. 
  • Record keeping (you know, roughly)
    • Keep a record for attendance, even if it is not important to you/the grade. If someone asks something, you can check if they came to class and help them better (or direct them to first get someone's notes and then come to you with questions).
    • Keep a record for in-class participation but remember that not everyone is comfortable speaking in front of everyone else. 
    • Keep a record for people that come to office hours. I had a student once complain at the end of the semester because I didn't him enough opportunities to respond to his questions. I had a record of how late he had been to class and how he had never come to office hours except at the beginning of the semester, how he didn't engage in class participation or in online discussions. So, he basically wasn't doing his part. 
    • Keep a record of the things that work and the things that don't. 

 

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I have a class policy for all my classes that I do not discuss grades for 24 hours after they are given back. It gives students a chance to think about the grade and make a logical argument or compose good questions. I also give them 2 weeks to discuss a grade after it's handed back. This way they aren't banging down my door at the end of the semester asking about grades from January. 

By biggest thing is to remember they're human. I had a horrible experience the first semester I ever taught. I thought I needed to crack the whip, and it certainly hit be in the face. I quickly learned that flexibility from all parties goes a long way. Be upfront about your hard lines. A big one for me is I don't accept late work ever. They know it from day one. I also try to make them come visit my office hours at least once during the semester. They realize I'm not a monster out to get them, and I get to know them as people. Just trying to build some sort of rapport with the class is the most helpful thing you can do. They're easier on you and you actually look forward to teaching. 

On a side note, if you have a war story of some kind, you should write those down. They're great party stories later on...depending on the situation. 

Edited by d.grace
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  • 1 month later...

Just for a dose of credibility, I have been teaching for about five years (one semester as an undergrad, two years as a TA, two years as an ALT, and one year as an adjunct professor).

Some pieces of advice (whether they have been echoed in this topic or not):

1. Have fun. I cannot stress this enough. You remember how it was being an undergrad student, especially taking a class that is required. I teach public speaking so it is required by ALL students in my university to take some sort of public speaking course. Meaning they do not really want to be there so much as they have to be there. That said, you have a captive audience but not necessarily a voluntary audience so it is an uphill battle to get your students onboard with what you are teaching. What you are teaching is important to you so it is part of your job to make it important to them. How do you do that? By having fun with teaching. Don't worry about the teacher-student power exchange so much. You have a degree in whatever it is you are teaching, meaning you know more about the subject than they do. You're the expert, not them (even if they think they are). This obviously depends on the level you are teaching but assuming you are a first-time TA, the chances are pretty high that you aren't teaching a room full of experts in your field.

In any case, please have fun with teaching. You can just tell the good teachers from the ones who just don't care anymore. That playfulness is lost in their eyes. So focused on being serious that if part of your goal is to get the students excited about your subject, then you already fell flat. Make jokes with them, get to know them as people and not as students. Give them advice like an older sibling or parent. Help guide them through school like a counselor. And be there to listen to them as a friend. But this all stems from just having fun as a teacher.

2. Cut them some slack. Depending on the students you teach, they are still students with lives outside of school. Yes, school is important to you (why else are you teaching if you thought it wasn't?) but that same idea may not echo in your students. They may be taking your class because they have to or because they want to but they do have other classes. Now that is not to say don't babysit them and not keep them on top of their shit. If they don't do an assignment and they don't have a good reason for it, then that sucks for them. But if you have the ability to cut a little slack and still maintain that level of respect with them, then take it. You won't be seen as a pushover but rather someone who wants to see them succeed but also teach them some life lessons along the way.

3. Don't aim so high. I have done this before and I have learned from my mistake. There is no harm in pushing your students to think bigger, come up with better ideas, and go out there and change the world. But the chances of you having an entire class that does that is pretty slim (unless you are teaching a philosophy class. In which case, think deep thoughts all you want). But for many of us who want to make teaching our careers, we want to change the world. We want to inspire our students to take what they have learned and apply it to their lives and hopefully change them for the better. However, like with #1, you may have a class who just doesn't give a rat's ass about your subject. Unless you have an entire class that is your major, you will have a lot of students who just don't care. And that's okay. Don't take it personally. Just think back to when you were a student and having to take those general ed courses and how much you probably didn't care about half of them. Same with these students. So don't aim so high, but aim reasonable. Push them where you think they can go and if it ends up being too easy, crank it up.

This can obviously vary with the subject. I teach Communication Studies so the level of slack or fun I can have in my class may vary from someone who teaches a hard science. But bottom line, just have a good time with teaching. Because if you are having fun, then the students may humor you and have fun with you and they are learning through enjoyment rather than through force.

As for practical techniques, I can say from experience to grade things as soon as they are due. Trust me... That pile gets bigger.

Good luck out there!

Edited by MinaminoTeku
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  • 4 weeks later...

- Speak to the professor teaching the lecture at the start of the semester to very clearly define what they want from you. Some will be totally hands-off; others may want to dictate exactly what you cover and how, so it's good to establish the tone of that relationship from the get-go.

- Impress on your students the importance of communication. Even if they are scared 18-year-old freshmen, treating them as adults - and telling them that that's what you're doing from the start - helps set up a professional environment. I always ask my groups to get in the habit of emailing me - even just in a couple of words - if they are sick, if they are running late, if they are having problems, if they have questions, etc. It vastly reduces the amount of running around you have to do after them, and in knowing what's going on with them you can therefore be more lenient about absences and have them trust you further.

- If you're terrified of teaching in general or of being caught out, don't be! I've taught for 5 semesters now and though the initial fear cropped up every term, I realized very quickly when I was first starting out that, even as a measly 2nd-year PhD student with no teaching experience, I already knew so much more about the class topic, and how to learn, and how to read critically, than any undergraduate I was faced with, even the very advanced ones. You will be able to answer 99% of the questions they ask, and for the 1% which you can't, I'd echo the advice given previously: either talk around the question, or say you'll look into it and get back to them later. Then, when you do email them later, they'll be impressed by your engagement.

- A small thing you can do to help students: reiterating your university's statements on diversity/inclusion/non-discrimination, and collecting information (anonymously if need be) about their preferred pronouns and any medical/psychological issues they may be dealing with in your first class also goes a long way to ensuring your classroom is a welcoming space.

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  • 2 months later...

Lots of great advice has already been given. I'll just add/reiterate a few points:

 

  • Stick to the number of hours allotted in your contract. Do not work more than the number of hours for which you are paid. Talk to your union rep if you need to hold the instructor of record to account (better yet, don't be afraid to tell the instructor early on that it's taking you longer than the budgeted amount of time. They may be able to identify some problems/inefficiencies; alternately, you can revise the budget).
  • Teach the students you have, not the students you wish you had.
  • Never show weakness. Don't apologize (unless you really screwed up somehow), stick to the letter of the syllabus, etc. Otherwise, it'll come back to bite you in the evaluations.
  • Don't make exceptions and meet students outside of your stated office hours
  • Don't take your evaluations to heart. There's always an asshole or two. And if you're a woman, just remember that women tend to get harsher comments than their male colleagues.
  • If a student gets shouty or aggressive in your office hours, stop engaging. Tell them to leave, and call security if they don't.
  • Don't over-prepare. Prep will always take up as much time as you allow it to take up.
  • Get yourself off-book (/off-slide). All you need to do is take some time to identify two or three crucial points that need to be conveyed, and just focus on getting those across. It'll make for a much more dynamic discussion. You don't need to prepare twenty-plus slides, or an hour's monologue.
  • Start and end class on time.
  • Grade with a timer. Like prep, grading will expand to suck up all available time if you allow it to do so.
  • Don't be too detailed with your comments; almost everyone will just ignore them anyway.
  • Keep the door open when meeting with students.
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  • 5 months later...

I've TA'd four courses throughout my Master's program, ranging from two tutorials of 20 students each, to five tutorials of 30 students each. I've received stellar feedback response from all my students, and never had a single bad review. I was hired into a TA job not knowing if I'd even enjoy teaching, but it turns out... I'm actually pretty good at this job. It just takes time.

Number #1 advice: Think of your favourite TAs when you were in undergrad. Why did you like them? Emulate them. For me, my favourite TAs were always relatable. They were students, too. They were conversational (but not overly buddy-buddy), casual in their demeanour (but still professional), did their marking on time, and were approachable. The ones who pretended they were already Professors, swept in and out of the class without ever engaging with us... they didn't make for a positive learning environment. Learn from their mistakes, before you ever enter this job.

Presentations and Material:

  • Make tutorial presentation slides that are clear and concise. Do not read from the PPT comments section, or from notes. 
  • Don't lecture at them - they already go to a lecture and learn passively. Engage with them. Talk to them conversationally. Ask questions, and put them into a discussion group at least once a tutorial. Silences are fine -- try to rephrase the question, or just let them ponder. 
  • Don't sit behind the desk. Walk around, gesture, sit on top of a table. Get them to WATCH you instead of their phones.
  • ALWAYS make your examples relatable. Relate to TV, to movies, to running jokes in the university -- whatever will help them remember the point.
  • Help them out. A little formula sheet they can keep beside them while going over questions goes a long way. How To sheets can help, too (and are easily found online). You exist to help solidify the material in their mind, and to make their learning experience just a little bit easier. So do that.
  • Team effort. The prof is there to teach the students, but you're in this WITH them. I always try to use a collective 'WE'RE going to attempt this question!'. It's just small phrasing, but solidarity matters.
  • I always ask "Does that make sense?", "Are you guys following me on this?". Their feedback is constant, and wanted, and I make sure 80% of us are on the same page before moving forward.

Personality:

  • Be passionate about what you teach! Always. Go on a rant about something you KNOW they think is boring, rave about something you want them to remember, exclaim how cool a topic is. Even if the students don't agree you with, they will appreciate genuine enthusiasm (or agreement of dislike) for a topic. 
  • Say hi to your students as they enter your class. Recognize their faces, aim to know at least 50% of their names by midway through the course.
  • The best way to do this, IMO, is to hand back their assignments personally (rather than dumping them on a table and letting them find their own). You can also ask them to say their names before they respond to any question (this works better with upper level students).
  • Put them in groups almost immediately, especially if this is a first year class. Make them be friends with each other. The worst thing that can happen is a tutorial where everyone sits once seat apart from each other and never speaks until they're told to do group work.
  • I don't call my students out, but I always try to respond with their name when they talk. "Yes, John", or "Great point, Sahil!" shows that you care.
  • I don't mind talking to students for 5-10 minutes after class, so long as they're not asking me to re-grade something, or teach them something new. Small questions, clarifications, or just general chat about the course fosters a strong learning environment. You shouldn't just Shut Down as soon as your hour is done.
  • For first years, I try to alternate my office hours, so that one week I'm in the TA office space, and another week I'm in a more open environment like a coffee shop. Different students will come to different styles of office hours. Sometimes an office intimidates them.
  • Don't be that TA that wears a suit and tie, or work clothes, to class. Jeans are more than ok for 99% of academia, so long as they're not ripped.

Marking, Emails, and Other:

  • Be real with students. Keep them up-to-date on what's happening with the marking. Go over any common errors or problems after each assignment or midterm. 
  • Keep them informed about any new developments. I always make sure to explain WHY we did things a certain way throughout the course, or why we marked something in that way. Students like to be kept in the loop.
  • I try to keep my emails professional, but just slightly more casual than a Professor would be. I've never had a problem with students being inappropriate, or being out of line. Give respect, receive respect. I also always try to respond within 24 hours, even if it's just a quick 'I'll get back to you!'.
  • Be reasonable, be flexible, but let students know what you expect from them, and what they can expect from you. 
  • At the same time, I ask students NOT to take pictures of my slides. I don't call out individuals, but a simple 'hey y'all, that's weird for me. If you come up to me after class I'll let you copy the slide" works fine.
  • Never bad mouth a professor, even if the students hate him or her. Listen and sympathize, but never agree.
  • In discussion tutorials, I try not to shut down opinions unless they're TOTALLY off base. A "That's interesting, what do you all think?" can help foster discussion and re-direct, or a "Hmm, you're not the right track, but not quite there...". 

Accept that you will mess up. More than once.

  • In the first course I ever TA'd, I was doing a (very simple) calculation on the board... and got it wrong. Erased it, went through it again.... and the answer was still wrong.  I admitted that it had been a long day, laughed it off, and we carried on... even though I was dying inside. Those students still gave me great reviews. It's okay not to know everything, it's okay to mess up, and it's especially okay (in broad 1st year courses) to admit that a particular area isn't your strongest point. 
  • I've had my heel break in the middle of lecturing. I've dropped stuff all over the floor. Again, be relatable, be approachable, and admit you're just a student, too. 
  • I once made a huge mistake with a professor, to the point where we had to scrap an entire question on the midterm due to my misinterpretation. I went to her as soon as I realized the mistake and admitted fault. Yes, it's horrible, and yes, you might have to apologize openly to both the professor and the students, but you're learning. It's OKAY. You're not expected to be psychically connected to the professor's thoughts. If you have a very hands-off professor who expects you to Just Know Things, schedule a meeting with them 2-3 days before every weekly tutorial session. Tell them what you're doing, ask them for any information related to midterms or assignments, and clarify concepts.

 

Edited by timetobegin
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19 hours ago, timetobegin said:

For me, my favourite TAs were always relatable. They were students, too. They were conversational (but not overly buddy-buddy), casual in their demeanour (but still professional), did their marking on time, and were approachable.

Note that this is an avenue of approach that is more possible the whiter and more masculine you present. Women and people of color often have trouble with performatively divesting themselves of certain aspects of their authority.

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37 minutes ago, telkanuru said:

Note that this is an avenue of approach that is more possible the whiter and more masculine you present. Women and people of color often have trouble with performatively divesting themselves of certain aspects of their authority.

I am neither masculine or white. "Approachable, casual, and conversational" are incredibly broad terms you can incorporate into your own teaching style, in any interpretation you choose. 

Edited by timetobegin
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