Although coordination and supervision of TAs are important topics in themselves, attention must also be paid to the training of teaching assistants. Training programs for teaching assistants exist in only a few departments, and even where training is available, graduate students often work several semesters for individual faculty members before they receive any formal teaching preparation. For many TAs, the only opportunity to learn basic teaching skills is with the course professors for whom they grade or lead discussions. We believe that faculty have a responsibility to prepare TAs for their teaching duties, not only to ensure high quality classroom instruction, but also to prepare them for teaching careers when they finish their degrees. Increasingly, college search committees are requiring job candidates to show evidence of their teaching ability, so departments can improve placement of their graduate students by providing training and practice in teaching. If, as a faculty member, you feel that training is beyond the scope of your responsibility, perhaps you can persuade your department colleagues to establish a training program for TAs.
Many faculty members maintain that we follow an apprenticeship model of training in graduate education – graduate students learn their vocation through practical experience, working under the supervision of skilled masters. Unfortunately, we often fail to provide the kinds of structured experiences that are necessary for the model to work effectively. A true apprenticeship system requires a ladder of experience that the neophyte must climb, leading from simple tasks to more complex ones, careful instruction at each stage of the work by a master, evaluation of the apprentice’s work and growing skill level, and certification that the apprentice has mastered the work.
To adapt the apprenticeship model to the task of supervision of TAs, four activities are important:
– Defining the TAs’ tasks as specifically as possible,
– Defining the relationship you will share,
– Providing advice, training, and support as they learn, and
– Providing feedback and evaluation.
All new TAs experience anxiety about their jobs because it is usually the first time they have to assume the role of teacher after having been students all their lives. A job description is an excellent way to summarize the job and how it should be performed. A job description should clearly establish the parameters of freedom and responsibility within which the TA will operate.
Before the semester begins, meet with your TAs to discuss the job description and to emphasize duties that you feel are particularly important. Review the course syllabus and show them how their work fits into the course and how objectives in lab or discussion sections relate to course objectives. Introduce new TAs to others who have assisted you in the past and encourage them to help one another. Encouraging the informal flow of information among TAs can save new TAs from making common mistakes and reduce the amount of time you will have to spend initiating new TAs into their roles. During the semester, let the TAs know well in advance of changes in the course schedule or departures from original objectives.
You have a responsibility to the undergraduates in their courses to insure that the TAs under your care have been well-prepared for the task. The staff will help locate additional source material and develop a tailor-made program for you. Such a plan requires that you meet with the TAs regularly and work with them as they develop their course designs. It is a good idea to provide sample syllabi and materials they can use and to schedule sessions in which they share course materials and test questions they have developed.
When you are assigned teaching assistants, you assume the dual roles of supervisor and mentor, roles that will inevitably shape the relationship you will have with those TAs. If your TAs are graders and discussion leaders, they also share a relationship with the students in your course, which adds another dimension to your affiliation. TAs can serve as your eyes and ears in the classroom and identify elements of the course that are working and those that are not. Soliciting and using their ideas for improving the course is a good management technique, because it demonstrates that teaching is an evolving craft that can always be improved, and that you value their insights as developing teachers.
If you are supervising TAs who are independent teachers, the relationship will be different – perhaps more collegial – but will remain one of master to apprentice (or perhaps master to journeyman). Remember that even experienced TAs can get into trouble and they need to know that you are available for help and support.
Questions to Consider
– Do you see yourself primarily as a supervisor whose main task is to make sure that the job gets done, even if it means making all decisions by yourself?
– Do you see yourself primarily as a mentor whose main task is to provide advice and encouragement, even if the job doesn’t always get done as well as you would prefer?
– Do you see your TAs as junior colleagues, and if so, how will that perspective affect your supervision?
– Do you think it is important to help your TAs achieve a measure of independence and self-fulfillment in their jobs?
– Do you feel that your TAs should have meaningful input into the design and teaching of your course?
– How will you show your TAs that you respect them as professionals-in-training?
– How much time are you willing to put into supervision and mentoring?
Regular meetings with your TAs are indispensable for coordinating their work and addressing problems and concerns as they arise during the semester. You can use some of the meeting time to explain common student difficulties with upcoming material and suggest specific ways TAs should approach it in their discussion sections. You should also explain the instructional purpose of each discussion-section meeting and suggest teaching strategies that will achieve these objectives.
Regular conferences also provide opportunities for TAs to share particularly successful teaching techniques. Many times TAs develop original and effective methods on their own, but unless these ideas are shared, only a few students will benefit. These meetings are an appropriate forum in which to bring up suggestions for improving the course and for passing on information about how well students are handling difficult parts of the course (and what might be done to help them).
If your TAs will be expected to help write and grade exams, plan to talk about your testing technique and grading criteria at these meetings. Ask TAs to bring in sample test items and have the group discuss ways to improve them. If you are using essay tests, ask the TAs to write model answers for each question and discuss their answers. Writing model essays can identify weaknesses in the questions, helps to determine if questions can be answered adequately in the time allotted, and provides a convenient scoring guide for the test.
One of the most common problems in using TAs as graders is insuring uniformity across graders. It is not advisable for TAs to grade the papers of their own discussion sections, at least not exclusively, because of the temptation to reward (or punish) students in their sections. Some supervisors require each TA to provide samples of “A,” “B,” “C,” “D,” and “F” papers for the professor to re-check. Others require TAs to grade papers together, in the same room, and have them compare “A,” “B,” “C,” “D,” and “F” papers. If you choose this strategy, it is advisable for you to be present at least at the beginning of the grading session in case you need to clarify any of your expectations about the test or the grading process.
If you are supervising TAs with full course responsibility, regular meetings are still necessary because problems that arise can be even more serious and difficult than those that crop up in discussion sections. For example, some TAs who are teaching for the first time impose impossibly high standards on their students. Even if their classroom technique is good, their students can be frustrated, angry, and demoralized if they feel the grading scheme is unfair. Other TAs may set very low standards and give high grades in the belief that they will get higher student evaluations. Some TAs become so fascinated with teaching (and, if they are successful, addicted to undergraduate adulation) that they spend inordinate amounts of time on their courses, to the detriment of their own graduate programs. TAs in these situations need your help to solve the problems and grow in their new role.
Teaching is a skill, and the only way to acquire a skill is to practice it. Over time, TAs should have the opportunity to practice all tasks associated with teaching, not just grading or leading discussions. Some large departments have TA career ladders: TAs begin as graders, move up to discussion section leaders, and finally assume full course responsibility.
You could choose three or four classes during the semester that exemplify particular teaching techniques and use them as models for your TAs. Meet with your TAs the day before a particular class and explain what you hope to accomplish and how you plan to do it. You might wish to focus on one element of teaching at a time, such as how to encourage student participation or how to deliver a stimulating lecture. After the TAs have observed the class, meet with them and discuss their impressions of the strategies that you used and whether or not they were successful.
Your TAs should have the opportunity to put their new knowledge into action as soon as possible. You might let them lead the next set of class discussions and observe their techniques. The same process could be repeated for lecturing or any other technique that you normally use in your courses. In any case, provide immediate and balanced feedback about their performance, mentioning both strengths and weaknesses. All of your comments should be directed toward helping them improve their classroom techniques and develop their teaching styles.
TAs should know how their work will be monitored and evaluated. Let them know that you see them as apprentices at teaching, and that you don’t expect them to know everything about the job. Make sure they understand that the purpose of evaluating their performance is to provide feedback that will help them improve as instructors, and not to grade or punish them.
Plan on observing your TAs at least once during the semester, but if you can afford the time, two or more observations, spaced well apart, would be better. TAs should know in advance the dates on which they will be observed (their day to day performance will not differ markedly from the times that they are observed, and knowing the dates will help alleviate anxiety). It is a good idea to use a checklist or other standard form when observing your TAs so that you focus on the most important elements of their teaching. As with all forms of evaluation, TAs should be given a copy of the form before they are observed so they know the criteria on which they will be judged.
Learning to be reflective about one’s profession is part of the process of socialization that occurs in graduate school. Although we try to develop this skill in our graduate students with regard to research, we may forget that they should also learn to regard their teaching in the same light. You might begin the process by suggesting that your TAs spend five minutes after each class session writing down the successful elements of their classroom performance and what they would do differently next time. They could note points where they need to add examples or fuller explanations, where student understanding seemed to be weakest, and what actions they could take to improve that class session. These notes could be the basis for a teaching journal that you review with them at the end of the semester. A journal might also include their reflections and insights about teaching, which would help them formulate a personal philosophy of teaching. In the last section of the journal they could set specific goals for improvement in their next TA assignment.
Having TAs fill out the same evaluation instrument that their students use is another method for stimulating self-examination of teaching. Any large discrepancies between the instructor’s ratings and the students’ ratings will signal the need for closer examination of those elements by the teacher. Sometimes the discrepancies indicate a need to change teaching strategies, and, as supervisor, your role is to help the TAs interpret the data and provide suggestions for changes.
It is particularly important for new teachers to get earlier feedback from their students so that they can make adjustments in the structure of the course or their teaching methods. The best time to conduct such an exercise is about one-third of the way into the semester, when both the teacher and the students have settled into the course routine.
There are many types of student evaluations in use in higher education today. Most universities have specific forms that teachers are required to use, but each department can decide on the form to be used and the circumstances under which it will be applied. If you decide to use your department’s form for your TAs, you should give each of them a copy of the questionnaire before the semester begins.
Whichever form you use, reviewing the results of student evaluations with your TAs should be part of the training process. You can help them identify areas of teaching they need to work on and discuss their approaches to teaching in the context of their student ratings. In some departments, student evaluations become part of a TA’s record, providing documentation for letters of recommendation. Increasingly, search committees are asking for such documentation of teaching competence, so establishing a teaching portfolio can be advantageous for graduate students.
Megan Wilson is a teacher, life strategist, successful entrepreneur, inspirational keynote speaker and founder of https://Ebookscheaper.com. Megan champions a radical rethink of our school systems; she calls on educators to teach both intuition and logic to cultivate creativity and create bold thinkers.