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Most people enter graduate school with very little (if any) teaching experience. One major component of learning to be an effective teacher is the chance to serve as a teaching assistant (TA). TAships are supposed to be an opportunity to observe a professional teacher in action and get hands-on experience with certain aspects of teaching without bearing responsibility for the whole course. This model assumes quality mentorship from the lead professor, which may be more or less the case in a given semester. Regardless of how proactive the instructor is in actually training the TA, here are just a few strategies TAs can use to make sure they are making the most of their TAship opportunity:

  • Take notes. Chances are, if you are TAing for a particular course, you may be asked to teach a similar course in the future (or at least incorporate those themes into other courses you teach). This is the perfect time to begin thinking about how those courses are structured and the content you will include when you are the lead professor. Try to attend every class, even if it is not required of you, and take notes during class. Although it may be review, write down notes on the content being presented for future reference. Additionally, try to take note of how the professor structures class time, interacts with students, and delivers the material. Then begin thinking about ways you might teach the course similarly or differently when you are in charge.
  • Offer to teach a class. Some professors are willing to allow a TA to take over preparations for at least one class period. This allows you to get involved in the behind-the-scenes work of preparing for class in a lower-stakes and (hopefully) supportive environment. Meet with the main instructor ahead of time to review your material, and maybe consider asking the professor to distribute informal student evaluations of your class. These can be used in a job market packet if you have few opportunities to obtain student evaluations; at the very least, the chance to see you in action gives the professor an insight into your teaching for letters of recommendation. If you are unable to lead a formal class, you could also practice preparing a future class session and see how it aligns with what the professor does.
  • Learn to grade efficiently and effectively. One of the primary duties of TAs is grading student work, sometimes including class participation. Those new to grading may see this as a daunting task. It is indeed and important one for both the students and for you: it is a chance to learn how to grade fairly without allowing it to take over your life. Talk to the course instructor and other TAs about strategies you might employ, read up on effective grading techniques, and consider attending a workshop through the Kaneb Center on effective grading.
  • Interact with students. Even if you are only grading for the course, seek out opportunities to practice interacting with students. Hold regular office hours and encourage students to attend. In consultation with the main instructor, put on an exam review. Chat with students before or after class to make yourself available as a resource to them. Even these casual interactions can be useful practice for running a full course.
  • Ask questions! While some professors will initiate conversations about teaching with their TAs, many times it is helpful if a TA comes up with questions to discuss with the professor. They can even be quick discussions after class: How did you plan for class today? What did you look for in the reading assignments? What do you do when students ask for a regrade on an assignment? While many of these conversations can start at the beginning of the semester, look for ways to learn from the experience of the primary instructor throughout the semester. The best way to do so: ask questions!

The experience of being a teaching assistant is often the first step towards teaching one’s own class, and it is an important part of graduate students’ professional development. However, it does not have to be the only preparation one makes. The Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning is a valuable resource on campus to assist TAs and instructors with all of their teaching needs. Attend one of our workshops, sign up for a confidential individual consultation, or check out our library with lots of great resources for teachers of all experience levels. We hope to see you soon!

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