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First Semester as a TA Survival Guide

How to Survive Your First Semester as a TA at Ohio University

By Dr. Muriel Gallego

Whether this is your first time teaching or you have relative experience, you will certainly benefit from the tips included in this survival guide.

Some sections of this guide have been adapted from "A Brief Survival Guide for New Graduate Teaching Assistants"" from the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.*

Part 1: Before the First Day

TRUST YOUR ABILITIES. You were selected to be a TA. Your department has some reason to believe in you, so believe in yourself.

ALWAYS PLAN AHEAD. Procrastinating is never a good idea, and being organized is key as both a student and an instructor. Time management will be a challenge.

GET TO KNOW YOUR CLASSROOM OR LAB AHEAD OF TIME. Before classes start, make sure you visit the room in which you will teach. You should get familiar with all the technology and equipment. Know how to work the equipment, including any computer programs or applications you may need. If something is not working and you know of it in advance, you can find help fixing it, or plan another way to present your material. Think of any particular sitting arrangements you would like to implement.

It is also helpful to calculate how much time it takes you to get to your classroom or lab from home, the library, your office, or any other point on campus. If you are going to ride public transportation, make sure you know the schedule.

GET TO KNOW YOUR ROSTER. You can get your class list and familiarize yourself with your students' names, faces and majors, and find out whether the majority of your class population will be incoming freshmen or more experienced students.

TALK TO YOUR FELLOW NOVICE TAs & TALK TO EXPERIENCED TAs. Make sure you build a support network before classes start; there are plenty of TAs experiencing the same challenges, and it will certainly help if you worked together. It is also recommendable to interact with TAs in other departments.

CONSIDER WHAT YOU WANT TO DO THE FIRST DAY. If you are part of a multi-section course, you will most likely be provided with a syllabus. Know the course syllabus inside and out. Know where and when you'll be holding office hours. Know all the course policies. If you attended a departmental orientation, review all the materials and instructions you were given. If you haven't been offered an orientation, attempt to obtain relevant information about assignments, tests, and grading for the semester before you enter class.

Part 2: First Day Suggestions

You know more than you might think, and your students are likely to cooperate if given a chance. Realizing that your competence is somewhat on the line, what follows are some suggestions to ease the stress and increase the excitement of your first day as TA.

BOTH YOU AND YOUR STUDENTS ARE PEOPLE. Try relating to them. Establishing empathy and understanding the balance between flexibility and firmness is of utmost importance.

TELL YOUR STUDENTS A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF on the first day. This will remind them that you are human. If you want to inform them that you are a new TA, that's fine, but don't come across as helpless. Rather, let them know how they can help you and fulfill their responsibilities as students (e.g., "Stop me if you have a question," or "Let me know if I make an obvious mistake.").

INTRODUCE THE CLASS. Discuss the syllabus and course organization with students. If you are at all nervous about the class, the syllabus will give you and the students something to concentrate on and may serve as a springboard for discussion. In addition, it will show them that you are organized, have planned ahead, and think the course is important enough to warrant your time and effort. Let them know what you want to do and how. Let them know what you expect from them. If it sounds at all reasonable, they'll help you set the tone from the start.

SAVE SOME EXTRA TIME TO DO SOMETHING CLASS-RELATED. After discussing the syllabus and your expectations, make sure you engage the students with the class content. Try your best not to lecture more than necessary. Find creative ways to introduce them to the class and make sure they understand they have to be active participants of their learning process. One way to do this is by having students discuss certain points in pairs, then you can elicit the information.

Part 3: Your Voice in the Classroom

A TA's voice can play a large part in the generation or termination of students' interest in a subject. There are three major components to a good speaking voice: 1) volume, 2) speed of words, and 3) modulation of pitch. The idea is to speak LOUDLY ENOUGH to be heard, without forcing the students farthest away from you to strain their ears, and SOFTLY ENOUGH for people to understand what you are saying, and QUICKLY ENOUGH that people don't doze off while waiting for your next word. Finally, MODULATE YOUR PITCH so that you neither drone people off to dreamland nor remind them of a theater performance.

How do you know if your speaking voice is right for the room size and for your students' The following suggestions may help you decide if and where you need improvement.

  • Ask your students if they can hear you, if you are going too fast, etc.
  • Watch your students. Their occasional lack of attention may be caused by not being able to hear you, by being bored by your voice, or by literally not understanding your words.
  • Record yourself placing a recording device (digital recorder, phone, computer, etc.) in the back of the room. If you are speaking loudly enough, the tape will pick up your voice.
  • Listen to your own speech for distracting habits like repeatedly saying, "Uh," or "Um," or "You know," or "Okay, okay"
  • Avoid dropping your voice at the end of your sentence or thought, since key information can also be included at the end, and you want your students to hear it.
  • In general, watch your students' responses, ask for feedback, and if you have questions about the sound of your presentation, voice them.
  • Videotaping the class is a good method to measure how effective your voice or speech is, as well as to evaluate whether you have the habit of repeating filler words, dropping your voice at the end of the sentence, talking to your students while writing on the board, etc.

In addition to volume, pace and pitch, there are other elements to consider when talking to an audience. For instance:

  • Enunciate.
  • Use silence wisely. You should allow students to process the information.
  • Wait. When asking a question give them time to think, don't answer for them.

Part 4: Your Handwriting and Board Work

The guiding principle of board work is: LOOK AT YOUR WRITING AS THOUGH YOU WERE A STUDENT IN YOUR OWN CLASS. Probably, almost anything you put on the board will be clear to you. The task, however, is to make your presentation clear to your students. Here are some points to keep in mind while planning a board presentation.

STUDENTS MUST BE ABLE TO SEE AND TO READ WHAT YOU HAVE WRITTEN. Illegible or obscured work is valueless. Watch out if you have small handwriting, tend to scrawl, or write too lightly. Sit in one of the last rows and take a critical look at your board work. Unless the floor of the classroom is sloped, students in the middle of the room won't be able to see the bottom of the board. Some TAs like to mark the off the "bottom line of visibility" with a chalk line. If there is a desk at the front of the class, keep it clear of objects that might obstruct vision. Additionally, try to keep your work visible for as long as possible. If you are right-handed, fill the right-hand panel first, then move to the panel on the left and continue your writing. In this way, you will not be blocking the view of students copying the writing that you have just completed.

YOUR BOARD WORK MUST BE ORGANIZED SO THAT STUDENTS WILL BE ABLE TO INTERPRET THEIR NOTES LATER. (a) First erase the board completely. This step is especially important in certain sciences, where stray lines may be interpreted as symbols. (b) If you are to solve a problem or prove a theorem, write a complete statement of the problem or theorem on the board, or write a precise reference. (c) Fill in one panel at a time, always starting at the top and moving down. (d) Make your notation consistent with that in the textbook so that students do not have to translate from one system of symbols into another. (e) Underline, or in some other way mark the most important parts of your presentation. For example: the major assumptions, conclusions, or intermediate steps that you plan to refer to later on. Colors may help to clarify drawings.

ERASE ONLY WHEN YOU HAVE RUN OUT OF SPACE TO WRITE. Be mindful of students who are trying to transcribe your material into their notebooks. For example, if a biology TA draws a diagram and then rapidly changes one part of the diagram and then another to show a process, students might not be able to reproduce that in their notes. If you are modifying a drawing, use dotted lines or some other technique to show changes. Remember that students cannot make the same erasures that you do without losing their written record of intermediate steps: you can alter parts of a drawing much faster than they can reproduce the whole thing.

IF YOU FIND THAT YOU HAVE MADE A MISTAKE, STOP. Don't go back over the last three panels madly erasing minus signs: first explain your error, then go back and make corrections, preferably with a different color.

IF YOU ARE PRESENTING MATERIAL THAT YOU WANT STUDENTS TO DUPLICATE IN THEIR NOTES, YOU NEED TO GIVE THEM TIME TO COPY WHAT YOU HAVE WRITTEN. They should not be asked to analyze while they are writing. When you want them to make or discuss a point, stop writing. Let people catch up to you. (They may be lagging behind by two or three lines.) THEN begin your discussion. Similarly, if you have engaged in a long discussion without writing very much on the board, allow them time to summarize the discussion in their own minds and to write their summary down in their notes before you again begin to use the board or to speak.

AVOID USING THE BOARD AS A LARGE DOODLING PAD. Students assume that what you write on the board is important. The board should serve to highlight and clarify your discussion or lecture. Used wisely, the board will enhance and underscore your presentation, not diminish it.

FIND OUT IF YOU ARE USING THE BOARD EFFECTIVELY. (a) At some point, ask your students if they can read or make sense of what you have written. (b) Occasionally, you can review their notes. After class, without prior notice, request one of your good and one of your average students to lend you their notes. If the notes seem incomplete or incoherent, ask yourself what you could have done to make your presentation clear enough. (c) View a video recording of your presentation, putting yourself in the place of a student taking notes.

Part 5: Your Presence in the Classroom

Your presence in the classroom and your efforts to maintain a productive environment will have a significant impact on the success of your class. What follows are some suggestions to help you with this.

BE PUNCTUAL. It is imperative that you arrive on time every day; this means, arriving a few minutes early in order to organize your materials and get ready for class. As the instructor, you are setting the example for students, and you should make sure that students are arriving on time as well. Ending class on time is also important, be aware of the fact that there are only 10 minutes in between classes, and somebody else might need to use the classroom after you. Make sure to maintain classroom etiquette (erase the board, arrange chairs, etc.).

BE VISIBLE AND USE YOUR BODY LANGUAGE. The classroom is your stage, and it is very important that all students can see what you do. Body language can certainly convey a message, sometimes more eloquently than words themselves. You can use gestures to explain a concept; you can show enthusiasm with sparkle in your eyes; you can also benefit from a bit of a theatrical performance. Ask your students if they can see you.

AVOID FIDGETING. Small and rapid movement, especially of the hands and feet, can imply nervousness or impatience. In addition, fidgeting can be very distracting.

DO NOT HIDE. Either because of nervousness or because you simply got used to it, or saw your professors do it, standing behind a desk, a podium or the computer stand is never a positive presence the classroom. Don't use "barriers" between you and your students.

FOSTER COLLABORATION. Enhancing collaboration starts with you. A way to model student-student interaction is to increase instructor-student interaction. If you understand that you are occupying a position of power, but you also understand the importance of working with students walk around and sit with them to foster collaboration.

BE APPROACHABLE. Students are very reluctant to ask questions or show confusion, and they might be more inclined to do so if you get closer to them. Walking around the classroom allows you to show availability, check their work, discuss with individual students or groups, and show flexibility.

MAINTAIN EYE CONTACT. As obvious at this might seem, it is also hard to accomplish when you are a novice instructor. Maintaining eye contact is not as simple as looking at people in the eye, it also means to command the whole classroom and to have an overall idea of students' reactions while you or other students are talking. If you use the board a lot, you have to develop a system that allows you to write on the board for limited periods of time, after which you will go back to facing the students and continue on with your discussion. Do not face your back to them for a long time. Do not face your back to them and talk at the same time.

Part 6: Contact with Students (In and Out of the Classroom)

What follows are some tips to help you create a positive atmosphere that is both conducive to learning and inclusive of all students.

LEARN YOUR STUDENTS' NAMES, preferably by the end of the first class. Calling your students by name goes a long way toward helping them feel at ease and included in the class. You can ask them to put signs on their desks; you can use your roster with pictures or assign them to certain groups as memorization strategies. Remembering names might not be as simple in large classes, in which case, you could try strategies such as: dividing them in groups and naming the group. That way, even if you can't remember individual names, you will know their group, their dynamics and some common trends.

MAKE EYE CONTACT WITH YOUR STUDENTS when you are speaking to the group as a whole. Instead of speaking to the clock at the back of the room, or looking up, look directly at different students in different parts of the room. Students then feel that you see them and are connecting with them. It may also help you to monitor students' comprehension and feelings so that you can adjust your delivery accordingly (repeating something, explaining something briefly, and so on).

BE AWARE OF YOUR STUDENTS' BODY LANGUAGE. Slumped bodies, rustling papers, private conversations, etc., may be signs that students are not paying attention, are bored, or don't understand. You can try moving around the room, varying the speed of your speech, asking some questions, or whatever else seems appropriate to refocus students back on you. If, on the other hand, you see students leaning forward, waving their hands in the air, looking directly at you, eyes wide open, smiles, etc., chances are you've got them where you want them.

BE SENSITIVE TO STUDENT NOTE-TAKING NEEDS. Whenever you can, use phrases like, "There are four applications of this theory... The first one is..." Your care in phrasing and pacing what you have to say lets students know you're aware of their presence. Organize your thoughts and the pace of the class. You also can make your lectures available via podcast, or you can upload the information you used to Blackboard, whether that be in a PowerPoint or even your handwritten notes.

A sensitive approach to your work with your students can create an enriching classroom atmosphere. If you phrase questions and criticism carefully, you can generally avoid defensive or hostile responses. If you are supportive, encouraging, and respectful of student ideas in class, then you can correct wrong answers, point out feeble arguments, or highlight weak points in a positive manner without discouraging your students. For example:

  • Rather than only pointing out what is wrong with a written paragraph or a problem solution, ask how it could be improved.
  • Instead of asking what the weak point of an argument is, ask how well it applies to or uses the material for the session.
  • Rather than dismissing an idea immediately, ask the student to clarify it using the material for the session. Don't, on the other hand, respond to student questions with "good point" when the idea was in fact poorly presented.
  • Always show students the courtesy of attending to their answers when they offer an idea; don't be writing on the blackboard, scribbling on a notepad or looking away. However careful you are, you may still run into some students who present problems. A few recurrent types, and ways to work with them, are discussed below.

The Arguer

If a student insists that you are not "allowing them their opinion" when you disagree with a statement they have made, point out that you disagree because the statement does not correlate well with the session's material. If the student begins to disrupt the discussion, offer to talk privately after class or during office hours. Remain calm and nonjudgmental, no matter how agitated the student becomes. Always use evidence when disagreeing with a student. Using the authority of your position as teacher rarely proves anything in a disagreement and can inhibit discussion. You can largely avoid having students feel that you are putting them down by not beginning critical statements with "I." Phrase criticism with reference to the material for the session or other commonly shared information from the course.

If a student is stubborn and refuses to postpone a disagreement until after class or office hours and completely disrupts a class, remain calm. If the student is agitated to the point of being unreasonable, ask them to carry the grievance to a higher authority. Make apparent your willingness to discuss the issue calmly, but do not continue trying to reason with a student who is highly agitated. If you remain calm in the presence of the group, the student may soon become cooperative again. In an extreme case, you may have to ask the student to leave the classroom, or even dismiss the class early. Seek to make your response as calm as possible and avoid making an issue out of a small incident. The hardest part of such a situation may be to maintain your professionalism and not to respond as if personally attacked.

The Talker

Although this may seem counterintuitive, too much participation can deaden a class. If a student is dominating a section by jumping in or volunteering to talk each time you ask a question, try to elicit responses from other students. Call on someone else even though the talkative student volunteers a response. Emphasize that you are interested in hearing from all students. Make sure they see that you consider the group's project a communal and not a competitive activity. The "talkers" might not realize that they are "monopolizing" the floor and might not do it with bad intentions, so it is always recommendable to talk with them about it privately. Let them know that you appreciate their willingness to participate, but that you need to balance their participation with the rest of the class. That way, the student does not feel unappreciated. If you perceive a deeper issue and you feel unable to resolve it, talk to your supervisor or coordinator. Do not ridicule a talkative student or make comments to other students in the group, but try as tactfully as possible to keep the group's activity going without reinforcing the talkative behavior.

The Silent One

The student who never speaks out in class also presents a problem. By making sure that all members of a class (if small enough) know each other by name and by trying to create a safe environment, you can sometimes overcome the silent student's fear of speaking. Small group activities-where the students discuss issues in pairs, for example, also can make it easier for a shy student to open up. As with the talkative student, do not ridicule or put the silent student on the spot, but do try to elicit answers from him or her at first once every session and later more frequently when he or she begins to appear more comfortable responding.

Talking with the student privately also can help. Reasons for being silent may vary. One silent student may merely enjoy listening. Another may lack confidence to contribute. The latter is very common among first-year students. Some students simply have quiet personalities; others may be undergoing personal stresses that inhibit their speaking in class. Some may be unprepared. Even after you gently encourage them to speak, they may remain silent. This is their right, and ultimately you must respect their privacy.

Requiring all students in your sections to come and talk with you during office hours at the beginning of the term and a second time during the term can help alleviate both talkativeness and silence by putting students more at ease.

The "Grade Grubber"

You may find that some students will unrelentingly pursue you if you give them a lower grade than they expected. Many faculty and TAs complain that they have had even A-minuses vigorously contested! While it is good that students are concerned about their grades, there are ways to minimize such extreme incidents. Make it entirely clear from the beginning exactly what you expect in papers or tests. If possible, make available some guidelines for a good essay or examples of a superior exam answer and follow a grading rubric. Explain that you grade the work or the performance, not the student's character. If students consider themselves "A students," they will probably let you know. Make sure that you applaud their previous work, but clarify that you will evaluate their performance in your class and your class only. Having a prosperous past does not guarantee a prominent present. When you do put the grade down, note in some detail weak and strong points of the work and suggestions for a better performance next time.

When students actually come to you to contest their grades, indicate that if you reconsider their marks, you retain the right to adjust them up or down. If you are the TA, advise students that in the case of unresolved differences, the professor or course coordinator can make the final decision. (Be sure to discuss this with the professor beforehand, however.) When no resolution is possible, brief the student on which office to turn to (such as the chairperson of the department or the appropriate college) to pursue an appeal.

Although grade grubbers can discourage you and appear to undermine the academic enterprise, remember that this generation of students is under pressures you may not have had as an undergraduate. Even though you do not have to second guess yourself or succumb to their pressure, you can work with them by having them understand that to obtain a perfect grade, outstanding work needs to be submitted. You also will have more success if you listen to and respond to their anxieties and complaints and re-direct their energy by inviting them to invest themselves in working instead of devoting their extra time to complaining.

The "Attention Seeker"

The student who is seeking attention, or displays off-task behavior, can posit a challenge when it comes to classroom management. First, consider the fact that every behavior has a function and that for some students any attention is good attention. In some cases, students are not distinguishing between positive attention (praise) or negative attention (reprimands). Some of the possible reasons for disruptive behavior in the classroom are: power, revenge, lack of motivation, mental health issues, diverse cultural perspectives, lack of maturity, difficulty adapting to college, and feelings of inadequacy, among others.

In many cases, misbehaviors exhibited by students are responses to a behavior exhibited by the teacher. However, understanding why a person exhibits a behavior is no reason to tolerate it. Do not tolerate undesirable behaviors no matter what the reason for it. Understanding the function of a behavior will help in knowing how to deal with that behavior, but if you don't know it or understanding it, you still have to set the grounds for not tolerating off-task behavior.

  • Remain focused and calm; organize thoughts.
  • Either respond decisively or ignore it all together.
  • Control the time and place for dealing with disruptive or off-task behavior.
  • Provide students with dignified ways to terminate disruptive or off-task behaviors.
  • Make specific references to behaviors; do not make it a personal attack.

Part 6.1: Office Hours

  • As a TA, you are expected to hold office hours for your students. Your department should provide you with office space for this purpose. Generally, TAs are asked to schedule between two to four hours per week for student consultations. It is likely that you will be asked to share your office with at least one other TA, so it is advisable for the two (or more) of you to get together early in the semester to attempt to arrange non-conflicting office hours. (It's usually much easier to keep your mind on helping a student when there isn't another conversation occurring simultaneously in the room.)
  • If your department is not giving you specific guidelines on office hours scheduling, varying hours may be a good idea. Rather than scheduling your hours MWF 1:00-2:00, you might set up hours like: M 1-2:00, TU 10:00-11:00, and F 11:00-12:00. That way, you may avoid having to schedule individual appointments with students whose schedules conflict with your designated time slot.
  • Office hours can be used to peruse mistakes on papers and tests, to provide overall feedback, to discuss strategies for future assignments, to clarify confusing points in last week's lecture, to demystify a demonstration given in class, to discuss grades and grading components, or to work together on a specific issue. Students might come see you in peace and with honest interest in improving, or with the preconceived idea that you are not grading fairly, not teaching efficiently, or that you are simply not capable. The rapport that you establish with students during office hours is likely to carry over into your class.
  • If a student is confrontational or emotional during office hours, It is recommendable to keep the door open to show your availability. In the case of a student being overly confrontational or emotional, having an officemate or fellow TA could be beneficial as well. All of the recommendations regarding contact with students in the classroom are equally valid in this case. At all times, remain calm. If the student is sharing information that is making you uncomfortable, refer them to the proper place for help. For example: If the student opens up about personal issues or suicidal tendencies, or if you notice something unusual in the student, you need to ask for help to peers and a coordinator on how to refer the student to counseling and psychological services.

Part 6.2: Socializing with Students

MAINTAIN AN APPROPRIATE STUDENT-INSTRUCTOR RELATIONSHIP. It is more important to be respected than to be liked; if a student respects you, he or she will also like you. A student is a student, and even when you may be very close in age, you should NOT consider being friends with students. This is a VERY serious and risky issue. Be cautious. Avoid colloquial language; avoid expressions such as "man," "dude," etc. Enforce this both ways; students nowadays tend to not recognize authority or might not understand that they should not greet you with "wassup" or "hey dude." This should be enforced either when talking in person or through emails. Clarify this to them if necessary. The same holds true for social media. Please keep all your account settings as private. Do not add students to your social media, and do not accept their requests.

*I thank Dr. J. Garvey Pyke, Ed.D., Director of The Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, for his generosity.