Advice for new teaching assistants

by Julie Dodd

jou3109 teaching team

Rich Shumate (on far right) was my lecture assistant for Multimedia Writing. The photo is of the lab instructors for the course.

When Rich Shumate and I met for lunch to celebrate him joining the faculty at Western Kentucky University, one of our topics of conversation was teaching.

As my lecture assistant during his doctoral program, Rich and I had literally hundreds of conversations about teaching, as we planned classes, discussed individual student situations, developed assignments and exams for the 200+ students in Multimedia Writing, and worked with the lab instructors for the course.

Knowing that I was going to be speaking at the University of Florida’s Orientation for Teaching Assistants, I asked Rich what advice he would give new teaching assistants. Here’s the combination of Rich’s advice along with my comments.

Shumate: Always be prepared for class. Don’t just go in and wing it. Your teaching should be planned.

Dodd: Sometimes those who are new to teaching think about professors they had who seemed to spontaneous in their teaching and think that they can be spontaneous, too. But most of the discussions that seemed to be spur of the moment were created by the professor’s questions or objectives for that day’s class. Some really great teaching and learning can happen that isn’t planned in advance, but most good teaching – that leads to students accomplishing the goals of the course – is based on planning and preparation.

Shumate: New TAs need to take time to get to know their students. As TAs, they usually are working in smaller group settings with the students. The students may have a faculty member for a large lecture, but the lab or discussion sections are with TAs. So the TAs have closer contact with the students than the professors.

Dodd: A good first step is learning the students’ names. I’ve taken photos of the students with my cellphone with them holding name tents and then doing a slideshow to refresh myself on their names.

Shumate: You need to be organized as a teaching assistant because you’ve got so much you’re doing. You’ve got course preparation and grading for the classes you are teaching on top of the courses you are taking and your own research. I created a calendar for every day and hour to keep track of how I was spending my time. That approach helped me, as I’m a visual person. And don’t procrastinate on grading.

Dodd: The course we worked with required that lab instructors grade and return the students’ writing assignments each week. That enabled the students to see how they had done on one week’s assignment and improve on the next. Putting off grading and returning papers can mean that students aren’t able to benefit from teacher feedback if they receive several weeks’ evaluated work at one time. Even worse is for students to receive the instructor’s feedback for all the assignments almost at the end of the grading term when students do not have adequate opportunity to improve their performance and grades. That also can lead to the instructor receiving critical evaluations from the students.

Even with your assignment as a teaching assistant, your own courses and your research, you were involved in student organizations. What organizations did you participate in and what did you consider to have been the advantages of that involvement?

Shumate: I was the vice-president and president of the Graduate Students in Mass Communications Association. That helped me get to know the other graduate students in the program. I also got to know the administration for the Graduate Division and the dean of the college. I was vice president of the UF chapter of Alpha Epsilon Lambda, a national honor society. That gave me the opportunity to get to know graduate students across the campus.

Dodd: A challenge for graduate students – and for faculty, too – is balancing time. You want to be able to do some of those activities that would be of interest to you even if they aren’t specifically part of your job duties. But you don’t want to be overwhelmed.

Shumate: You need to learn how to say “no.” My first year in the doctoral program, I said “yes” to everything. But then I learned that I couldn’t do everything. It’s better to say “no” when asked if you don’t know if you can manage the time instead of saying “yes” initially and then realizing you can’t do it and having to say “no” later on.

I was better able to make those decisions about balancing my time and saying no as a doctoral student, having learned, as a master’s student, about balancing the demands of working, teaching and taking graduate classes. You may not be able to juggle all of those balls.

You can follow Rich on Twitter @The_Shumater and read his blog, Chicken Fried Politics.





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