The role of teaching assistant (TA) is likely to be a part of the educational experience of undergraduate and graduate students during some part of their professional training. The teaching assistant’s role as an instructor is a somewhat unusual one because few TAs receive any formal training in the skills of teaching. It is often assumed that TAs will make good teachers simply because they have achieved a certain level of expertise in their chosen field.
However, it should not be assumed that the possession of knowledge of a particular discipline provides any guarantee of an ability to transmit that knowledge to others. Beginning TAs often speak of their initial frustration with teaching because of their inability to communicate to students the information and enthusiasm that they themselves have accumulated over numerous years of study. One of the tasks of the new TA, therefore, is to learn to translate the language of a discipline to students in a way which makes it both accessible and meaningful.
The following section has been designed with the goal of helping new teaching assistants become familiar with the various aspects of the TA role. Part Two addresses the TA’s role as an instructor. The TA experience may be the only opportunity students have to prepare for their careers as future instructors.
The information provided here is intended for TAs across the campus, it may be somewhat general, thus requiring you to seek more specific guidance from faculty, administrators, or students in your own department or college. It is our hope that this handbook will provide guidance as you develop your own teaching styles and strategies when you embark upon you first teaching experiences at the University of Florida.
TAs are academic anomalies, assuming the role of faculty when teaching and then reversing roles to become students when taking classes themselves (Gappa, 1991). As a TA you are literally between student and professor, between amateur and professional. You will need to learn how to balance your duties to your students and your duties to your own education. To help you navigate through this foggy terrain, we offer the following basic survival tips: (University of Delaware, 2002)
- Use the available teaching resources.
- Develop a network of good relationships with your peers and faculty.
- Be familiar with your department’s expectations.
- Discuss problems openly.
- Be prepared to ask for assistance.
Teaching Assistants are often asked to do a variety of jobs, depending on the department. In each of the following positions they will perform a number of functions:
Learner – Although you are knowledgeable in your field, some aspects of the subject will be new to you and will require careful preparation. Allow yourself the time to pay close attention to detail and check everything before you begin. The best teachers are usually the ones who make the greatest effort; however, no teacher is perfect or omniscient. Don’t be afraid of being wrong sometimes and admitting it to students.
Representative of your department – Each discipline has its own methods and standards. Some TAs will have more autonomy in their teaching than others. However, you are responsible, with the supervising faculty member, for establishing reasonable standards for the students, and for helping them meet these standards.
Teacher – Whether you independently teach a class, instruct in the lab, lead the discussion, or grade essays and exams, you are a teacher and must help the students learn. This task involves much more than just the specific knowledge of the subject; you must be able to communicate this knowledge and provide good, usable feedback.
Role Model – TAs can be excellent role models for undergraduates because they are often close in age, have been clearly successful in higher learning institutions, and show the undergraduates what they can aim for. TAs should take their position as role models seriously by displaying traits of idealism, enthusiasm, and professionalism in their teaching.
Friend – All teachers must show respect for and interest in their students. Both in the classroom and while grading assignments, you will be creating a learning atmosphere for students if you are enthusiastic, helpful, knowledgeable, and most importantly, fair to all students.
Intermediary – TAs are the perfect liaisons between faculty and students because they understand, ideally speaking, both sides. You can explain the rationale of the faculty member to the students, but you can also provide an early warning system when things are not going well by telling faculty members what the students dislike.