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Almost every graduate student ends up being a teaching assistant (TA) at some point in their career. While all teaching assistantships aren’t equal and your mileage may vary, I put together some general advice on handling a TA position that I have learned over the last two years.
It is possible to assume that the duties of a teaching assistant are limited to classroom teaching and office hours, but that would be a mistake. You spend a significant amount of time preparing lectures, typing up lecture notes or slides, creating and grading homework assignments and more, depending on the type of course and your professor. All of these activities are usually also concurrent with your research and coursework loads; hence careful scheduling and planning can save you from getting buried under a pile of ever-increasing work.
The first step I would suggest doing early on in the semester is talking to the instructor to understand the needs of the course and then evaluating how much time each of the various responsibilities would take. Creating weekly schedules with time blocked off for each activity helped me juggle my responsibilities, such as managing more than 300 students at a time, and it would certainly help you.
A single misunderstanding of your instructions could severely impact a student’s grades. Miscommunication regarding assignments, lectures and grading rubrics could all be severely detrimental to the objectives of your course, so communication is key. Students don’t listen to instructions very well: hence they have to be repeatedly reminded through announcements in class, on the course management system and via email. Effective dossiers, syllabus documents and other materials need to be made available to them to make your job easier.
Most of the time, students are tense, dealing with immense course loads and stress. On top of that, difficult coursework makes them nervous about sharing that they don’t know something until it is too late. Many will come to you again and again asking for extensions of deadlines and explanations of course materials you already explained a million times. Instead of attending tutorials and office hours throughout the semester, they pester you with questions just before critical deadlines and exams. All of this can be quite frustrating; however, it would serve you well to be patient and accommodating. This creates an environment that fosters learning, which is the ultimate goal of your job.
Being a teaching assistant comes with the immense responsibility of facilitating learning for a large group of students, which means you need to be on top of your game in terms of the content of the course during your interactions with them. If students sense a lack of commitment and knowledge on your part, they will stop engaging with you. Spend a significant amount of time preparing for lectures, tutorials and office hours. Ensure that you understand the material enough to be able to grade assignments and projects properly. Discuss with the instructor if you need assistance regarding any material, as sometimes you might find it difficult to understand. Remember that helping other students learn the material effectively means you are also learning with them, though just a bit ahead of them.
No matter how much you plan, prepare and effectively communicate, there are going to be situations where you will be taken aback. Students may ask you something you cannot answer, or there may be decisions that you need to make immediately. In these situations, hold your own, be calm and honest. If you don’t know something or you are unsure, telling them that you cannot answer it at the moment and will get back to them with a researched answer later is fine.
Showing vulnerability but assuring that you are working to provide the best possible assistance conveys honesty and builds trust in you, which is essential in a classroom setting.
In conclusion, effective planning, preparation and communication can be very effective tools in managing and mentoring students; However, there will always be situations where patience and calmness can certainly come to your rescue.