I recently sat down with a group of graduate students who were nearing the end of their first semester as a Teaching Assistant (TA) at Vanderbilt. The last time we were all together was in August during Teaching Assistant Orientation (TAO), a day-long workshop facilitated by the Center for Teaching. At TAO, we discuss various important topics such as TA roles and relationships with professors and students, effective grading and office hours, leading discussions, and creating an inclusive classroom. We also do our best to answer questions about possible troublesome scenarios that could arise and familiarize them with the resources they have at their disposal should they need them.
Now, nearly four months later, I was interested in hearing their thoughts on how their first semester as a TA had gone. Several students expressed the sentiment that being a TA was easier than they originally thought it would be, and that getting along with the students in this new role had gone smoothly (relieving an anxiety they held prior to TAO). A lot of feedback I heard with regards to unexpected struggles involved topics that we try to address in TAO, but which require ongoing efforts to improve. Among these topics, communication problems with professors, balancing time spent on TA duties with their own schoolwork and research, and grading difficulties seemed to be the most common grievances. Some of these issues will iron themselves out with more experience and making slight changes in approach. For other issues, it’s valuable to share stories with other TAs and hear specific strategies that have worked for your peers and that you might adopt. Finally, I think there’s some room for sharing feedback with academic departments as well. The TAs brought up innovative ideas such as creating a database of answer keys written by TAs in previous semesters so as to lessen the time burden for some classes. If individual departments would take the initiative to get anonymous feedback from TAs, they might find room to make minor improvements that would make life easier for their TAs and garner a feeling of being valued and appreciated.
Another question I was very eager to ask was what this group had learned from being a TA this semester. I was pleased to hear that the most pervasive takeaway was gaining a framework for how to teach classes themselves one day. In addition to choosing the topics covered and how they were communicated to students, other important choices witnessed were how to engage the class, how to design class incentives, and how to deal with unexpected events in the classroom. I believe that being a TA is a valuable stepping-stone to developing your own teaching philosophy, and it was great to hear that after only one semester these new TAs had gained this appreciation too. The TA position is very unique, since you are a bridge between professors and students and get to witness both of their perspectives and appreciate both of their opinions. In addition to developing and improving communication and organizational skills, it’s an opportunity to watch a professor/mentor to see how their methods and approaches do or don’t work, and to assess how your own interactions with students are or are not effective.
This brings me to my final discussion point with the TAs, which was how important it is to take time to reflect on your own teaching effectiveness. End-of-semester reviews are a prime opportunity to get direct feedback from students and to consider any changes that you might make in future semesters. And just as we make resolutions in the New Year, we should consider making resolutions in the classroom as well. The start of new semesters is an opportunity for a clean slate, a fresh focus, and a renewed commitment. By developing a reflective and evolving teaching practice, we can continue to grow and improve for the benefit of our students.
Image credit:“Leave,” Condesign, Pixabay (CC)
Written as part of of my Teaching Affiliate follow-up project for the Center for Teaching