Starting Out as a Teaching Assistant: What I Wish I Knew

Three UCalgary grad students share their insights about working as a TA.

 Starting Out as a Teaching Assistant: What I Wish I Knew

For many grad students, working as a teaching assistant (TA) is a big part of the transition from student to teacher. Stepping up to the lectern takes courage and confidence, and it’s one of the best ways you can enhance your graduate studies with practical experience and transferable skills.

Read on as three current graduate students share their advice on succeeding as a TA. Brittany Lindsay is in the final year of her MSc in experimental psychology, James Papatzimas is a fifth-year PhD candidate in organic chemistry, and Shabnam Moghtader is completing her MA in communications, media, and film.

Can you describe your past and present TA duties?

Lindsay: As a TA, I have facilitated student lab work (answering questions and guiding students), taught more formally in labs, marked assignments and exams, invigilated exams, answered many (so many) emails, collaborated with the instructor and other TAs, prepped materials for labs, and held office hours.

Papatzimas: As a TA for undergraduate courses, my duties have reoccurring themes. In chemistry labs, student safety is a responsibility of TAs. Other responsibilities include marking, interacting with students, and addressing student concerns and issues. TAs are often a link between the instructor and students, and we have a personal perspective on how students are handling course work and meeting expectations. My favourite role as a TA is interacting with students and seeing them progress throughout the year.

Moghtader: I would attend lectures; doing so helps prepare you for tutorials and for fielding unexpected questions arising from course content. It also shows the professor that you care about the content and the students. Other duties include doing course reading, grading, developing lesson plans, leading tutorials, updating D2L, and being available during office hours.

Do you have any advice on managing workload?

Lindsay: It can take up a lot of time, but it is so worth it. If possible, try to TA something you are comfortable with the first time so that it requires less preparation. Additionally, try to slot out time for marking and answering emails so that you aren’t disrupting your other work for these things. Put your duties into a calendar as if they were a class.

Papatzimas: I use a Google calendar and will set blocks of time specifically for marking, so in my research I can have some down time waiting for reactions while I mark. Discussing solutions with your supervisor on how you’re going to manage your time is also very helpful, and will often result in their long-term support.

Moghtader: Keep an open line of communication with the professor you are assisting. Be clear on what your role and duties entail and keep track of how many hours you’re putting into your TA tasks. If you feel you’re doing too much, discuss with the professor. They may have tips on how to cut down time spent on something like grading.

Tell us about your training from the Taylor Institute, or any other support you’ve received from your supervisor or program.

Lindsay: The TI Graduate Student Certificate in University Teaching and Learning (and its badges) is awesome! I have completed some badges such as the Emerging Teachers Development badge and the Developing Your Teaching Dossier badge. You learn valuable information from the facilitators, and you get to collaborate with students from other departments.

Papatzimas: The chemistry department has a Teaching Assistant Training and Mentoring (TATM) program, run by graduate students. This was very helpful for me. In my early days of teaching, I had a lot of support from a lab technician, and these are great people to bounce ideas off of and ask for help.

Moghtader: I received a lot of support from my supervisors. Again, keeping an open line of communication is key. I would often ask for feedback on lesson plans, grading, or guest lecturing. This helped me stay on track and ensured continued improvement and success in tutorials and presentations as a TA and as a student.

How did being a TA change how you look at your own research?

Lindsay: A friend of mine told our graduate students the other day, “I recommend being a TA because you learn new things yourself.” Because I have been teaching statistics for two years, I think that refreshing these concepts has made me a stronger researcher because you really need to understand the material well to be able to teach it.

Papatzimas: Teaching has allowed me to interact with students who have different learning styles and perspectives than myself, and I try to implement different ways of thinking in my research daily.

Moghtader: It actually makes me more detail-oriented, which ultimately makes me work harder.

What advice would you give yourself starting out as a TA?

Lindsay: Teaching is not a race. Take your time and be deliberate and confident in your words and your body language. It is a lot of work and sometimes you’ll be frustrated with the students, but at the end of the day, I have never regretted a single moment.

Papatzimas: Always take the time to answer a student’s question thoughtfully. It doesn’t have to be in the moment, but make sure you get them an answer at some point. It might be the answer that keeps them interested in that topic.

Moghtader: Know the limits of your responsibilities and never make up answers. It’s OK to tell a student that you’re unsure. Just let them know you’ll get back to them with the answer. And don’t forget to get back to them.

Being a teaching assistant requires a lot of attention and preparation, but it’s an incredibly rewarding role. If you’re thinking about going into a graduate program, most likely you’ll have to be a TA at some point. Hopefully our students gave you got a better idea of what to expect!

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