Being a New Graduate Student Teaching Assistant (TA)

Being a New Graduate Student Teaching Assistant (TA)

November 18, 2019 0 By Stanley Isaacs


What surprised me the most was how much fun
and pleasure I took away from the 50 minutes that I would spend with my students in the
classroom. That we could have thoughtful exchanges, and dialogues, and discussions that I didn’t
think were really going to be possible or that the students would want to feel comfortable
sharing with just the TA, right? At the end of the day, you’re not the instructor, you’re
only the TA. I thought maybe I won’t be interested in communicating with me the way they would
with the instructor. But in fact, it turned out that many of the students were much more
comfortable speaking in a smaller group like that. It fostered a greater sense of community
and relaxed atmosphere in the classroom. I’ll see the writing skills of the students in
the class, it’s quite their friend, we have really good students and those are students
who are struggling expressing themselves and some of them are not very well prepared for
the writing assignments. The amount of work surprised me the most. I was totally unprepared
for how much time it would take to prepare a lecture and to grade student’s work. So
I had no idea how to prepare a standard for deciding how much a question should be out
of or how to grade a paper for grammar, content, all of that kind of things. So coming up with
a rubric or standard of assessment was left to myself and I found that very difficult
because I had to figure out the whole process and then figure out how to apply it. The varied
levels of interest that students had in tutorials as well as the very different levels of scholarly
development that each student brought. I was leading a tutorial in a first year history
class and in that class there were people fresh out of high school, but there were also
mature students who were in the third year of their degrees. And so the students themselves
brought very different things to the tutorial and I think that surprised me to a great deal.
I found myself very frustrated with some of the errors that were being made and some of
the lack of comprehension of concepts, but I had to remember that I was a grad student
looking in on undergraduate work and I hadn’t necessarily noticed my own progression through
that process and I might have myself made those very same mistakes. So it lead me to
think more about what it is to be like a first year undergraduate student. One of the biggest
challenges I think for new teaching assistants is setting boundaries with students, particularly
because, usually, teaching assistants are so close in age to their students. At the
end of the day, you need to remember that you’re not a full professor, you don’t have
tenure, so you can’t have more of a laisez-faire attitude around friendships with students.
You need to remember that you’re the teaching assistant, you’re in the position of power,
and you need to respect those boundaries between yourself and the students. So I would never
recommend that you hang out on … a personal level with your students, that those boundaries
need to be respected. The biggest challenge I think is to convey myself, to express myself.
Let the students know what they learn from the assignments and specifically from my comments,
but sometimes it’s really difficult to let them understand that from the very short comments.
The biggest challenges for myself were being able to balance the demands of coursework
with the demands of being a good TA. So, for instance, when I would get exams or papers
to grade, there would usually be around 40 to 50 of them. And I would have one week to
turn it over. So, I would have that one week to figure out how to grade all of this material,
but I would also have to write a paper, study for a midterm, and that kind of thing on the
side. To actually engage your students in a meaningful way, particularly in tutorials
where a large part of their mark comes from them speaking. Trying to generate some sort
of dialogue is often a great challenge. The thing that I enjoy most about being a teaching
assistant is the stepping into the classroom and having X amount of students, usually their
full attention for 50 minutes or however long you have them in the room. As a new mom, I
am never the centre of attention. My young son is the centre of any gathering of any
sort. So it is very refreshing to have the experience of walking into a room and everyone’s
attention being on me instead of my 2-year-old. Just lovely. I think experience is very helpful
and especially for my writing, and my writing skill does get improved from marking the assignments
and some problems or questions that the students have in their assignments. I sometimes also
have that. So, from that I know how to improve. The thing that I enjoyed the most were the
students themselves and being able to learn about teaching. So, it was completely new
to me – I did not have that opportunity before in a university setting – and I really loved
being able to see how students respond to certain teaching styles and how they picked
up or didn’t pick up on information in class. It was wonderful. And so getting to know the
students, you know, sort of helping their intellectual development has been a great
pleasure. This is a very practical tip: when you’re going your marking and you’re writing
your marginal and end comments on your student’s labs or essay, what have you, don’t mark in
a red pen. Try instead something that’s a little less … scary. Try a green pen, a
purple pen, a blue pen, but don’t mark in a red pen. It just comes across as scary to
a lot of students whereas you want your marginal and end comments to not be scary, obviously,
but instead be much more … almost like a dialogue between yourself and a student. “Here,
I think you’re doing something really well here. Oh, I think you need to flesh out this
argument a little more over here.” That just comes across a little bit better in, say,
a purple pen as opposed to a red pen. Before you become a TA, and you have to know yourself
first and to get yourself prepared and also know your subject first to make sure you get
everything from the class. And also be professional and confident. I suggest taking some workshops
from the Gwenna Moss Centre, definitely, because that helped me a lot to figure out assessment
and teaching styles. I also suggest sitting in on some of the classes for the prof’s you
are grading because that will help you understand why the students are or are not picking things
up and it will also help you see what a class is like from an undergraduate student perspective.
I also suggest tracking your hours. This is not necessarily so you can claim more time,
but just so you can make sure that you’re maintaining that balance between a TA and
still being a good grad student. I would suggest that new teaching assistants have confidence
in their abilities, in their … you know, in their strengths as instructors in training.
If you are in a tutorial setting, learn to be okay with awkward silences. Learn to sort
of be patient with the students. And I think that in so doing, you’ll be able to, in the
long run, be able to generate some very interesting and helpful dialogue with your group.