So, you’re about to TA your first course. I don’t know about you, but when I was hired for my first course, I had only one thought: “I have no idea what I’m doing.”
I hadn’t reviewed the material at all, I didn’t feel qualified, and, worst of all, it required programming in DrRacket. Oh, how Racket still haunts me. But luckily for me, I was not alone. I was surrounded by knowledgeable professionals that passed down their wisdom through training and books like The Successful TA by Nomme & Pollock.
To summarize 100 pages in just one sentence: ask for help. If you don’t feel confident, the best way to gain confidence is to prepare and learn from others. Part of the beauty of a university, and certainly the fine institution we attend, is that there are thousands of qualified people with years of experience from whom you can seek guidance. The book hammers home the idea that, when in doubt, turn to your professors or your peers who are more knowledgeable and experienced for advice.
That may mean watching other people teach or delivering a sample lecture and asking for feedback. Hell, giving a lecture to your stuffed animal collection can be a great way to practice. For the record, I don’t have a stuffed animal collection… just a few teddy bears. TAing is hard work, and it requires a great amount of practice and support to perfect. No one gets it right on their own.
One limitation of this manual is that it overly focuses on teaching duties for TAs. Unfortunately, most TA work does not involve teaching time but rather marking and office hours. Sometimes you get asked to do random things — I got asked to deliver a bike to my boss’s daughter once. Although these responsibilities do not require as much attention as teaching, they are still important, and should be explored further. Luckily, the same overarching lesson applies in these situations: ask for help. And now, I will offer my unsolicited help in these areas.
Marking, specifically, is a difficult skill to develop. At the beginning, expect not to be very efficient as you work out the little time saving tricks. A good one I learned for Crowdmark specifically is to memorize all the keyboard shortcuts — they really help. This is a great time to remind you to go and seek help from experienced markers. After a while, you’ll start to get the rhythm and flow of it all, and then you’ll be a marking machine.
Office hours, on the other hand, are a little more complicated. You will constantly be walking the fine line of giving away enough information to be helpful while not giving away too much. When in doubt, less is more. A successful office hour visit is one where the student leaves having learned enough that they can continue to work on their problem. Give a student the answer, and they solve one problem. Teach a student how to find answers on their own, and they can solve any problem — like the proverb about how if you give a man a fish, you’ll feed him for a day, whereas if you teach a man to fish, you’ve fed him for a lifetime. Everyone wins!
To the book’s credit, a nice touch is that there are little exercises scattered throughout that ask the reader to consider how they would handle a specific situation, such as students being disrespectful during your teaching time. This helps hammer home some of the ideas presented in each section. At the end of each section, the authors provide their response or advice for how to manage each scenario. This principle should carry forward during your work: if you are unsure how to solve a problem, ask for input from other people. They may offer a perspective you have not considered, which is invaluable when it comes to teaching.
One problem the book does not address at all is TAing in a remote-learning setting. Knock on wood that this won’t be as frequent as it has been for the past two years, but there are still some classes which are taught in an exclusively online format.
It’s worth mentioning that TAing online is quite different from TAing in person. Certain things don’t change — for example, marking is more or less the same online — but virtual interaction with students is a whole other ball game. We’ve all struggled to connect online and you may find it more challenging to convey ideas over Zoom than in person. So be prepared and patient when engaging students online, because you will find it much more difficult.
At the end of the day, all of the responsibilities a TA could have are learned skills. They will take time to develop and will require dedication on their part, but they will come with time. With each term and each course, you are improving and learning. After a while, you will find your own style and the techniques that work well for you.
Just keep in mind that education is an ever-growing field and people are constantly coming up with new ways to help students learn, so it’s important to talk to other people about teaching and learn what you can from them. This book is one such resource that you can use as a gentle introduction to some good practices you can carry forward with you. Now go forth and teach!