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Managing Office Hours

This post was written by Catherine Sims Kuiper, Graduate Associate of the Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning.


As new instructors it can be particularly difficult to establish appropriate boundaries in the help we give our students. This happens for a variety of reasons, but most often because graduate students who are new to teaching can feel a need to prove their worth to their students. It’s helpful to keep in mind that your students are already disposed to look up to you as an instructor and to assume that you are in a position to help them. The important choices you will need to make – in conversation with your professor and any other TA’s for your class – are in establishing how much and what kind of help you should make available. Note that some professors will have very clear expectations they expect you to follow, while others will leave you more flexibility to establish your own guidelines. Regardless of your situation, you should have a clear idea of how much help you are prepared to offer at the beginning of the semester and to lay this out for yourself and your students by clarifying what exactly your office hours are for. While there is of course much to be said about the ways in which you can best support your students, here we focus on managing expectations and workload as you aim to balance your TA work with other duties.

Here are some helpful guidelines for structuring office hours, focused on managing your own time while cultivating a good working and mentoring relationship with your students:

  • Clear Communication. Whatever specific rules you establish for your office hours, make sure that your students are aware of them. Decide on a time and location and on how flexible you can be with making additional appointments to fit your students’ schedules. You may wish to offer students the chance to vote or fill out a calendar poll, so that they have input into which of your available times become official office hours. Once you have come up with a plan that suits your needs as an instructor and a student yourself, communicate this to your students at the start of the semester.
  • Set Boundaries Out of the Office. You do not need to be available to your students 24/7, and in fact it’s better for them not to form a habit of depending on you to do this. Consider establishing certain hours for responding to student emails (and communicate these hours to students!); if you do receive a question late at night, wait until the following morning to respond.
  • Create Structure. It can help to have an agenda in mind for a meeting with a student so you can budget time accordingly. If you have a number of students who need to discuss an assignment with you, plan ahead to allot sufficient time for everyone while still keeping to your own schedule. Additionally, keeping to a pre-arranged schedule will help you know when you’ve fulfilled your obligation to your students.
  • Know Your Limits. You are here to teach a particular course, not to spend endless hours coaching your students on how to study or how to write. If giving input on writing or studying begins to occupy too much of your time, be aware of the different campus resources such as the Writing Center or Academic Services, which are available to help students cultivate the different skills they need to succeed. Even more importantly, don’t offer help you’re not qualified to give. The University Counseling Center (UCC) offers counseling services to students who are struggling with mental or emotional burdens that might come up in office hours. You are welcome to suggest that a student visit the UCC, or even offer to walk them to St. Liam’s Hall if you believe their situation is urgent.
  • Cultivate Good Habits. You need to follow your own rules as much as your students do! Make sure you are prepared ahead of time for contingencies that include referring students to other services, keeping to the time allotted for your office hours, and appropriately limiting your responsiveness to emails.

Maintaining these kinds of boundaries and structures around your office hours will help you find a balance that allows you to best complete your research, coursework, and other teaching duties, while still offering the individual support your students need.

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