Another element of the role of TA is that of assistant to a faculty member. TAs may find this relationship very rewarding since it provides them with an apprenticeship-type experience to teaching. The TA-faculty relationship may also require a delicate balance of diplomacy and compromise because the boundaries of the TA’s responsibility and authority may be somewhat fuzzy. It is advisable, therefore, to attempt to determine early on just what your supervising faculty member’s expectations are and to establish the range of responsibilities you will have for the semester.
These responsibilities will vary from professor to professor and across departments, some of which have well-established roles and responsibilities for their TAs. Therefore, our suggestions are offered as broad possibilities, not as imperatives for operating. Some of the administrative issues you might want to address with the faculty member in charge include: (Adapted from Case Western Reserve University, 2002)
- What responsibilities do TAs have? How much individual freedom is appropriate to fulfill these responsibilities?
- What are the course goals and grading criteria? What is the best way to standardize them across sections or courses?
- How much time is required for office hours, grading, and meetings? How will that be scheduled?
- What kinds of problems are anticipated? How are these problems to be solved?
- Other details may need to be clarified such as enrollment procedures, course material selection and availability, and the location of TA offices. It is essential to know how the course will operate so that you can sufficiently respond to students’ questions or problems.
There are numerous ways of obtaining answers to these questions. Below are some suggestions to keep in mind as you begin to negotiate your responsibilities as a TA. (Adapted with permission from Bailey, 1986)
- You might ask directly, or wait until the instructor offers information. For example, some professors may tell you exactly what to cover in sections and assign particular readings for discussion. Others may say nothing and assume that you already know what to do. In negotiating your responsibilities as a TA, deciding what to ask, how, when, and of whom requires some subtle judgment capabilities on your part. Marching into a professor’s office and making demands is certainly not advisable, yet you do have the right to have some idea of what will be expected of you throughout the course of the semester. Your experience as a TA may go more smoothly if you learn to practice the fine art of negotiation as you establish a working relationship with your supervising faculty member.
- Some faculty members may want to structure some kind of weekly meeting into your relationship where current issues and concerns pertaining to the course can be addressed. Others may want to talk to you more informally by meeting now and then, before or after class, etc. This setting is where your role as a spokesperson for students is likely to be carried out. Once again, it is advisable to learn to negotiate these situations with subtlety and diplomacy.
- As a teaching assistant you may or may not have the opportunity to construct your own syllabus. Many TAs will simply follow the syllabus as it has been outlined by their supervising instructor. It is important that you familiarize yourself with the policies and procedures the professor has outlined since you will most likely be called upon to implement them at some point. Be sure to clarify any policies which are unclear or problematic, because you want to avoid a situation in which there is a discrepancy between your actions and the professor’s policies. If time permits, some instructors may attempt to include the TA in the construction of the syllabus, making his or her name, office location, office hours and telephone number available to students at the beginning of the semester. This practice can be helpful in establishing rapport with students since they will know who you are and where they can find you when they have questions or need help. The TA’s responsibilities as a section leader, lecturer, and grader can be outlined here as well, making students aware from the start that the TA’s authority as a teacher and evaluator is supported by the faculty member teaching the course.
Adapted with permission from Unruh, 1986
Misunderstandings occur between TAs and professors when one is expected to guess the needs and feelings of the other. One professor might want course materials brought from the library. Another might want you to come to his or her office 15 minutes before class. Professors who have worked with many TAs sometimes assume every TA knows of their wishes. And TAs who are new to a professor need to be told what is expected. Experience shows that it helps to ask specific questions: “Shall I stop by before class tomorrow? Are there any handouts?”
If you have too much work or if there are problems of other kinds, it almost always helps to talk to the professor. Let the professor know that you respect and trust them, and that you understand their situation and point of view, too. Should your relationship with a supervising faculty member become so problematic that you feel unable to address them directly, you must make a decision as to whether or not to bring the issue to others such as the department chairperson or a graduate committee member or chairperson. You might also consult your academic advisor for advice. In any event, you should remember that these are serious steps and you should be very certain that a situation truly warrants such measures before they are undertaken.
It may be advisable to speak to an experienced graduate student to get a “second opinion” before consulting faculty members or department administrators. Duties or assignments which seem unfair or too difficult at first glance may indeed be part of the standard role for TAs in your department. Other graduate students can be a great resource for finding out what is considered “normal” in terms of TA rights and responsibilities for your department. Decisions to raise issues about faculty supervisors must always be carefully considered, especially if the faculty member in question teaches graduate courses in which you are enrolled (or may be in the future) or if he or she serves in any other role requiring evaluation of your academic or teaching performance.
Adapted with permission from University of Illinois at U-C, 1988.
What are some personal qualities and attitudes useful in working with students and colleagues?
Qualities such as warmth, friendliness, caring, enthusiasm, accessibility, and sense of humor. In general, if a teacher is enthusiastic, friendly, and seriously interested in the subject, his/her students also will be interested.
Will you be able to effectively manage the interpersonal problems which arise when you teach?
It is important to remember the University serves a large number of students enrolled in different disciplines that attract different kinds of people. You can expect a range of student abilities, attitudes, and learning styles in the basic courses you first teach. Just as college students have different levels of intellectual skill and ways of processing information, they have different rates of social maturation. Some are still rebelling against authority and will test you. Other students do not notice their behavior disturbs others, and some simply do not care. Some students enjoy learning; others put up with classes and focus on their social life. In spite of student differences, teaching assistants generally get along well with their students. Helping students make sense of the world around them is gratifying and a welcome change from studying.
How can you successfully manage your interactions with so many different kinds of students?
It is important to think about teaching interactions in as practical a way as possible. Keep the following four points in mind:
- First, do not be afraid to ask for advice. New TAs typically feel they are alone when experiencing problems. Others feel incompetent and many hesitate to share their problems. Every department has a cadre of instructors or TAs who are known for their good teaching. These colleagues are a rich source of advice.
- Second, the best way to handle a problem is to prevent it. Let students know early in the semester what you consider appropriate or inappropriate student behavior. Think carefully about the policies you want to establish, communicate them to students, and be prepared to deal impartially with students who ignore them. Talk about attendance, tardiness, idle chatter, exam and quiz make-ups, cheating, and whatever else concerns you.
- Usually, the best time to handle a problem is when it occurs. If you want to discuss the matter privately, ask the student to see you immediately after class or before the next meeting. While a problem which is ignored may not worsen in the eyes of others, its significance may increase for you or the student so that you may become too upset to effectively deal with it. Problems typically do not go away if you ignore them.
- On the other hand, avoid appearing hostile and overly aggressive toward students. Some inexperienced teachers, in order to avoid potential difficulties, will “lay down the law,” overreact to maintain control, and not smile until Thanksgiving! Balance is needed.