6 Things Every First-Year Grad School TA Will Understand Deeply

6 Things Every First-Year Grad School TA Will Understand Deeply
As you prepare for a TA position, use these tips to show students your enthusiasm for and commitment to their education—and ensure that they reciprocate. Image from Unsplash
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John Tures September 10, 2019

Contrary to popular belief, college students can't smell fear.

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So, you’re eager to start your master’s degree or doctorate and perhaps a little stressed about the challenges coming your way. And then you discover that you’ve been selected to work as a teaching assistant, “TA” for short, and are responsible for teaching a college class, answering students’ questions, holding office hours, leading discussions, and even grading assignments and exams. You could say that, ultimately, your task is to help students understand a new way of looking at the world. This is not an easy job.

While some TAs have teaching experience or took education courses in college, evidence shows they are actually few and far between. Most grad students could probably use a little advice about how to get started on growing their teaching skills.

In my experience, I fell into the latter group. I discovered I was a TA on my first day of grad school. Just as quickly, I learned that within a few hours, I had to lead the discussion section of a college lecture. At the time, I hadn’t even heard of discussion sections. I had come from a small college to a large R1 university for graduate school. Regardless, I should have been proactive about finding out if I got the TA job and what my duties would be.

As you prepare for a TA position, use these tips to show students your enthusiasm for and commitment to their education—and ensure that they reciprocate.

TA Bootcamp is a thing you need to know about

After my first year as a grad student, my university created a boot camp for new TAs. This resource is generally available for grad students, but in some cases, is offered to TAs who are in college as well. During the program, experienced graduate students led the new folks in exercises and lessons surrounding classroom management, student engagement, and creating inclusive learning environments, among other topics. While I already had TA experience, I still showed up—and I’m glad I did.

Programs of this sort offer new TAs the opportunity to learn the fundamentals of teaching and learning. They’re also a great way to help them grow their confidence as they build a network of peers who face similar responsibilities and challenges of the position. Plus, they’re a great addition to any grad student’s resume—and in some cases, even offer a stipend upon completion.


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Rediculious questions are unavoidable

Early on, outline to students what is expected of them to ensure a positive and productive learning experience for everyone. By doing so, you’ll create a culture in which students take responsibility for their learning and behavior. Be as clear as possible when communicating your expectations. Don’t just hand out a syllabus and expect students to read it on their own. Instead, try presenting it in an exciting way. You could even give a syllabus quiz for a small but meaningful percentage of students’ grades.

During my first class as a TA, I received a ridiculous number of questions about things I had already explained. I found myself answering in a way that sounded like the nobleman from the “In search of the Holy Grail” Monty Python sketch, who admonishes a pair of dim-witted knights. Fellow TAs loved the story so much that I often showed students a clip of the sketch to get them to pay attention and avoid asking dumb questions. I also asked more attentive students to answer questions for others, so those who don’t meet classroom expectations learn the importance of doing so.

Additionally, if the professor you’re working with doesn’t have any rules for discussion, create your own. I recommend using language that calls for some degree of civility with penalties for violating it. You don’t have to bend over backward to prevent a million microaggressions from happening. As a Political Science Professor, I always ask students to demonstrate a level of professionalism similar to what they might experience in business meetings. This means that they can debate ideas without making needless personal attacks or using inappropriate language. It seems to work, as students are very interested in being ready for not just the business world, but the workplace in general.

Helping students help each other is your new secret weapon

For your first class, consider scheduling the first half for going over the rules and then getting into an activity. Play a game to help students learn each other’s names while involving aspects of the lesson or topic you’re teaching.

For example, later this month, each of my politics students will present a short but straightforward research project on banning assault weapons. Before informing their classmates about what they learned, each student shares their name and something that’s interesting about them. By helping students become familiar with one another, you’re more likely to build an environment that encourages students to work together and participate in collaborative learning. My colleague makes name placards, so everyone knows who everyone else is, and this works well too.

Yes, you can have too much fun—please, don’t be that “that guy”

Some teachers make the mistake of seeing their job as one that toes the line of a comedian. Remember that as a TA, your mission is to explain the material to students in ways they can understand and remember. Don’t use humor just to be relatable or make a class enjoyable. Use humor to keep class exciting without distracting your students or providing opportunities for discussion or the lesson to be derailed.

It’s okay to pull the plug

There’s always a chance that something you try isn’t working. Maybe students aren’t engaged in professionalism or a topic you raise devolves into an ideological bias. Or perhaps you tried to have a little fun and became sidetracked, diverting from the lesson. There’s also the possibility that students simply aren’t excited by the topic at hand. These nightmares haunt even the most experienced professors, not just TAs who are new to the demands of teaching.

If it happens to you, be prepared to unplug a discussion that isn’t working by dialing back or shifting to another topic. As you interrupt the flow, be sure to honest and upfront in your explanation to students about why you’re restructuring the lesson. If an apology needs to happen, be sincere about it. There’s a good chance your students understand, and better yet, appreciate your transparency when speaking about the predicament at hand.

I’m lucky and haven’t experienced many of these disruptions throughout my career—and I think there’s a secret to this. Instead of waiting until problems occur, build relationships with your students early to create a mutual sense of trust and respect.

You’ll learn just as much as your students will

These are not the only lessons to learn. Take James M. Lang, for example, an English Professor at Assumption College who has a host of ideas for your first day of class alone. Additionally, consider building close ties with experienced TAs from your program or professors who were once TAs themselves to continue learning the ropes. And be sure to keep notes of your experience, so you don’t lose any knowledge you learned along the way.

Finally, keep in mind that your program, professors, other members of your school community place trust in you to prepare students for tomorrow. Understand that you have a tremendous responsibility, put in the time and effort to earn students’ trust, and you may discover that the opportunity provides success.

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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