Whether you’re starting your first TA’ship or your 15th, the first in our three-part primer provides expert advice to help you start off on the right foot.
As a new teaching assistant, you will need to become familiar with several aspects of the course: its overall goals, expected student learning outcomes as set by the course supervisor, expectations in terms of your role, teaching materials, and guidelines for class preparation, assignment design, and grading.
1. Clarify expectations with the course supervisor
This should ideally take place before the course begins in a meeting arranged by the supervisor. Be sure to discuss overall learning objectives for students, expectations for student participation and conduct in the lab or classroom, and criteria for evaluating participation and written work. You also should clarify how much time you should spend preparing for classes, how much feedback you should give students both in class and on written assignments, and how much time you should spend grading. Clarify, as well, how often you are expected to communicate with the supervisor throughout the term. Find out the deadlines for submitting grades.
2. Identify the administrative procedures related to the course
Do you have access to a photocopier? Do you have access to an office where you can meet students? Who do you speak to if there is a problem with your classroom? Are you familiar with and properly trained in lab safety procedures? Who is the contact for audio-visual equipment?
3. Familiarize yourself with the room where your classes will be held
As soon as you know which room you’ve been assigned, inspect it. Will it be possible to move around, or are you restricted to teaching from one area (it’s best to move around the room as much as possible while teaching and not stay in front of the blackboard or screen)? Can students form groups easily by moving their chairs or desks? If not, how will that affect your interaction with students and their interaction with each other? Can students see you easily from all points in the room? Try writing on the board or overhead projector if one is available; is your writing clearly visible? Becoming familiar with your teaching environment will help calm your nerves on that first day of teaching.
4. Get acquainted with all course materials
Make sure you are familiar with any resources that are being made available to the students. If they are being asked to use a course website or online instructional tools (such as an online writing tutor) make sure you are familiar with these tools, too. If instructional technology is being used, be sure to practice using the technology before your first class (such as running a PowerPoint presentation). Make sure you know how to get all texts related to the course and, if applicable, the correction keys as well.
5. Talk to other TAs
Try to meet with fellow TAs in the department who have taught the course before or who have worked with your course supervisor. Ask them which teaching strategies worked well for them when they taught the course material and what material the students mastered easily or struggled to grasp. Share best practices and brainstorm some possible solutions to anticipated problems.
6. Prepare carefully for your first class
Design a plan for the class. How will you introduce yourself? How will you establish the “climate” of the class? How will you introduce the expectations for the course? How will you introduce the subject material? It’s best to choose an activity that will allow students to ease into the material. Review the syllabus for the course. Be explicit about clarifying deadlines and requirements for assignments with your students.
In addition to the required administrative information that appears on the course syllabus, be sure to set clear guidelines for your students on all of the following points:
Clarify all institutional and departmental policies regarding plagiarism. Try to provide models of what a proper citation should look like in your discipline. Explain not only how but also when students should cite sources. Discuss the Internet and how to cite online sources (many students do not know they need to cite web-based sources).
Provide guidelines for in-class discussions or in-class group work. How prepared should students be for discussion-based work and what are the characteristics of a “good” class discussion?
Provide guidelines for how and when and how often students can contact you outside of class. Discuss your availability via email and your office hours. Be explicit about the kind of support you will give them beyond the classroom and how much independent work they are expected to accomplish.
Explain in detail the procedures for preparing, submitting and evaluating written assignments.
By working through these steps when you’re preparing to teach, you’ll develop a crucial set of skills that will carry you through your academic career: establishing a productive working relationship with the course supervisor and your colleagues; preparing instructional materials; setting goals for students and clearly communicating what is expected of them.
Megan Burnett is assistant director of the teaching assistants’ training program in the Office of teaching advancement at the University of Toronto.