The Role of the Teaching Assistant (TA) and Assistant Instructor (AI)
Welcome to a wonderful new adventure and opportunity for personal and professional growth.
There are many reasons why you have become a TA or AI, not the least of which is financial support for your graduate studies. But, because your work directly impacts the lives of undergraduates and their learning, doing your job well is essential to fulfilling the university's mission. Through teaching and advising undergraduates effectively, we can impact student retention, build a sense of community and promote institutional loyalty.
TAs and AIs at UT have a wide range of responsibilities depending on their department and their assignment. TA and AI duties range from the traditional ones of grading, leading review sessions and holding office hours, to leading field trips, writing exams and generating course web sites.
Because responsibilities range so widely, as soon as you receive your assignment, arrange to meet with your supervisor. This initial conversation provides an opportunity for you to:
- get to know each other,
- share your skills,
- share your interests and expertise,
- learn more about the course and the students you'll be working with, and
- about the professor's expectations.
Job Description and Expectations
Perhaps most important, it provides an opportunity for you to understand what is expected of you. Ask for a job description. But if he or she doesn't have one (and many will not) get a copy of the one provided by the Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) Program, a component of the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL).
A reason for establishing clear job expectations is that TAs and AIs frequently report that misunderstandings occur with their supervisors. Having a clearly articulated job description can help head off possible conflicts down the road.
A final advantage of a written job description is that it provides a tool for you to conduct a self-assessment at the end of the semester, or to ask your professor to provide you with some feedback in each of the relevant categories.
Now let’s consider what it means to be a successful TA or AI. The range of expectations may be broad even among professors in the same department. However, you can't go wrong with the following recommendations:
- Establish a good working relationship with your supervisor and your peers.
- Establish a support group of peers who are also new to teaching.
- Establish effective relationships with your students.
- Let’s explore some ways to accomplish these relationships.
- Be reliable. When you post your office hours, be there!
- Learn your students' names, let them know you care about their learning, and try to create a sense of community. For example, you can encourage them to form study groups and provide opportunities for online discussions.
- Prepare for your teaching duties, prepare, prepare, prepare! Determine your objectives for every class and the activities that will stem from those objectives. Anticipate your students’ questions in advance.
- Use office hours as an opportunity to look closely at your students' work.
- Establish your standards (within the instructors' guidelines) and stick to them. Your goal should be to provide intellectual challenge along with instructional support.
- And finally, convey enthusiasm for your subject.
If your first TA or AI position involves teaching, and you're lacking confidence, in this section we'll discuss how to improve as a teacher.
There are many opportunities for you to learn how to be a better teacher.
- Find a faculty mentor in your department to whom you can talk about teaching.
- Develop a collaboration with a more experienced peer from whom you can learn.
- The Graduate Student Instructor Program (GSI) offers semi-annual conferences on teaching for graduate student instructors (GSIs).
- For information on how to develop and organize Blackboard and web sites or to learn about online teaching strategies to build learning communities, visit the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL).
- Learn about 398T, the course on college teaching offered in your department and when you are eligible to enroll in it.
- Most important, turn every teaching assignment into an opportunity for reflective learning, so that your teaching will continue to improve.
Universities recommend that their graduate student instructors develop a teaching philosophy and a teaching portfolio. These materials will be invaluable to share with prospective employers, and will assist your professional growth.
One of the most powerful tools for improvement is seeking and utilizing feedback on teaching. Here are several sources of information for this:
- Grades from your students on quizzes, exams, homework and assignments. These may indicate whether they are comprehending the material being presented.
- Feedback from your students in the form of informal assessments administered several times during the semester.
- Observations from a colleague, and
- UT’s official Course Instructor Survey for instructors of record.
In summary, recognize that teaching, like any other skill is learned. Don't expect yourself to be perfect from the outset. Be open to learning through workshops and classes. An excellent "primer" on how to teach is "Teaching Tips" by William MacKeachie or "Tools for Teaching" by Barbara Davis.
What are some typical challenges that you are likely to face? Some TAs and AIs find that time management is a challenge. Others find that motivating students is an issue. Still others find grade disputes stressful. Whatever the issue, remember to take advantage of available resources. These include: referring problems to your supervising professor, consulting with peer colleagues or faculty mentors, and utilizing campus resources.
Don't be afraid to ask. If you encounter departmental conflicts that you can't resolve, you may want to consult the Employee Assistance Program. If you're confronted by a student whose problems seem insurmountable, consult the Counseling and Mental Health Center for advice on how to best assist students.
In handling the inevitable problems that arise, remember to take care of yourself. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the challenge of juggling teaching, studying, dealing with a different environment (if you're new to UT), and for some of you, raising a family as well. Use campus resources for assistance with time management, perfectionism, anxiety and stress.