Student/Teacher: Tips for Being a Great TA

May 12, 2011

Graduate students: Feeling intimidated by your first TA assignment? Don't miss the following tips for reducing your stress and becoming the best instructor you can be.

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By Megan Driscoll

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The Characteristics of a Good TA

The Clark University Center for Teaching and Learning recently hosted a professional development series focused on a very common grad student question: What makes a good TA? Throughout their discussions, they found that three key elements emerged over and over in successful TA experiences:

Good professor-TA communication.

TAs who maintained open communication with their professors had a much more clear picture of their responsibilities and the overall goals of the course. Important topics include the division of labor, scheduling expectations and how your work as a TA will be evaluated.

Taking initiative.

TAs who were proactive about identifying crucial tasks and managing their duties were generally seen as much more effective instructors.

Respecting the job.

Before they're instructors, TAs are students, and they're often not much older than the undergraduates they oversee. Experienced TAs found that maintaining a professional attitude and a healthy respect for the demands of each unique TA position served them well.

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Teaching Tips

Keeping the practices above in mind can help guide your entire TA experience and ensure that it's a positive one. However, if you're a teaching newbie, chances are you're looking for a few more concrete pieces of advice. Here's some specific tips for improving your instructional skills:

  • Practice, practice, practice. Stand in front of a mirror and deliver course content to yourself, or try presenting it to a friend. This will help you be less nervous when you're standing in front of your students.
  • Be clear. Communicating with your students is as important as communicating with your professor. Be sure they understand what's expected of them in the course both logistically and academically.
  • Be professional. Your students may be your peers, but it's inappropriate to develop social relationships with them. Be friendly and polite if you encounter them outside of class, but maintain professional boundaries.
  • Manage your time. Many new TAs are surprised at how big the workload of teaching can be. Make sure to budget lots of time for your teaching duties.
  • Manage your expectations. It's always important to strive to do your best, but you're only human. If you make a mistake in front of the students, laugh it off. And remember, while you should try to keep your students engaged, you can't please them all. Don't punish yourself if everyone's not on the same page.
  • Ask for help. Part of maintaining communication between you and your professor is seeking guidance. Make sure that you have a clear understanding of your duties and responsibilities and never hesitate to ask if you run into difficulties. It can also be helpful to talk to more experienced TAs for tips or troubleshooting advice.
  • Strike a balance. Teaching is going to be a big part of your life, but you're still a student and a person. Treat your TA position like any other job and be sure to set it aside each day to pay attention to your schoolwork and personal life.

Just starting the grad school process? Don't miss our tips for choosing the right graduate program.

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