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Survival Skills

I was totally lost when I got to the university. I didn't know where anything was. I didn't have the foggiest idea how to teach or what was expected of me.
--Graduate TA

  • Use introductory programs
  • Develop a network
  • Discern faculty expectations
  • Discuss problems openly
  • Ask for what you want

Starting out as a TA can be very frightening. Not only do TAs have to learn how to get around campus: they also struggle to understand what they are supposed to be doing as TAs and as graduate students and trying to learn to be an effective teacher at the same time. There's a lot to learn rapidly.

 Learn Your Way Around

TAKE ADVANTAGE OF INTRODUCTORY PROGRAMS. CTE offers a TA conference in the summer and then provides a number of ongoing workshop sessions on college teaching throughout the year. Many departments offer specialized orientations for graduate students and for teaching assistants.You may also contact CTE for individualized help throughout the year.

DEVELOP A NETWORK. Your Department TA Coordinator,supervising faculty member secretaries, and other graduate students can help answer questions like: Where is my mailbox? How do I get lab space? What's the procedure if I need to make overheads or copy something? What are the departmental expectations for TAs?

Develop a Good Relationship with Faculty

While most faculty/TA relationships are cordial, sometimes difficulties arise. A TA who does not develop an effective relationship with his or her supervising faculty member can allow tension and frustration to build on both sides. Let's look at some specific things graduate students can do to foster a healthy faculty/TA relationship.

  • DISCUSS ALL THE FACULTY MEMBER'S EXPECTATIONS very clearly at the beginning of the semester. Some of the questions to ask are:


    1. Will I be lecturing?
      • On a regular basis?
      • •Occasionally
      • When the instructor is absent?


    2. Will I be leading discussions?
      • On a regular basis?
      • Occasionally?
      • When the instructor is absent?

        If yes, should I:

        • Stay close to the textbook or reading materials?
        • Stay close to the lectures?
        • Encourage all students to talk?
        • Do most of the talking?
        • Deal only with students' questions from the lecture?


    3. Will I be tutoring and/or giving individual assistance?
      • How much is too much?
      • What kind of assistance shouldn't I give?
      • Should I organize group help/review sessions?


    4. Will I be conducting or supervising laboratories?
      • Obtaining supplies and materials?
      • Keeping track of supplies and materials?
      • Designing or revising experiments?
      • Giving demonstrations


    5. In case of emergency or accident, what do I do?


    6. Will I be using AV material, or computer equipment?


      • What equipment?
      • Am I responsible for getting and returning it?
      • Whom do I call to schedule equipment?
      • What equipment can the classroom accommodate/support
    7. Will I be evaluating or grading papers, projects, reports, quizzes, examinations, student participation?


      • Are the criteria for assigning grades clear?
      • Is the process for determining the final course grade clear?
      • •What portion of the grade will I be responsible for?
      • Will the instructor review disputed grades?
      • Will I review disputed grades given by the instructor?
      • How much time will I need to set aside for grading?
      • Should I make two copies of all grades?
      • How do I keep records of students' grades?
    8. How much autonomy will I have?


      • To try different teaching practices?
      • To present parts of my research?
      • To present perspectives different from the instructor's?
    9. What about my office hours?


      • How many hours per week?
      • When should they be offered?
      • Should they be coordinated with the instructor's?
      • If my TA work is taking more than the required 20 hours per week, what is the best way to tell tell the supervising faculty member so as not to create conflict?
    10. Who will supervise me?


      • How?
      • How often?
      • How will my TA performance be assessed?


    11. What should I do, whom should I contact, if I can't come to a lab, will I receive feedback on my teaching, discussion section, problem-solving section, office hour?


    12. What other responsibilities will I have?


  • GET TENSION OUT IN THE OPEN AND DEAL WITH IT. Tensions generally escalate when you ignore problems in faculty/TA relationships.  Try to confront  these problems early on, although difficult, is often necessary.

One way to get a problem into the open is to "call the process." That means you make an observation (e.g., You've sounded angry at our last few meetings...) and then ask what's going on (e.g., Are you upset with what I'm doing?) or simply ask, "How are things going? Am I meeting your expectations?" If your professor simply starts attacking you, it is appropriate to ask for more specific feedback.

  • TALK ABOUT PROBLEMS IN FACULTY BEHAVIOR.  When a faculty member behaves in a way that interferes with a TA's ability to do the job or perform as a graduate student, those issues should be tactfully discussed with the faculty.

It is extremely important that the TA not be perceived as attacking the faculty member's competence. This means avoiding loaded words. Be specific: (e.g., "... when all of our meetings for the last three weeks have been cancelled due to changes in your schedule"). Make a case for change: (e.g., "I can't get feedback on some major questions the students raised that may create problems on the midterm and it makes me look less credible"). Tell the faculty what you want to happen (e.g., "I'd like for us to set up a regular meeting once a week that I can count on for questions").

  • COMMUNICATE FREQUENTLY WITH SUPERVISING FACULTY. Be clear about your schedule and give early notice about conflicting needs.

When you have a special need such as a major project due or illness in the family, let the faculty member know what's going on and ask for their support. It is especially important to ask openly rather than fail to fulfill expectations and set yourself up for more severe problems.