Attending new teacher orientation — maximizing your experience

by Julie Dodd

UF TA Handbook 2018-2019

That auditorium looks like C130 in UF’s Chemistry Lab Building — one of the 17 auditoriums I’ve taught in as a UF faculty member.

Thousands of teaching assistants across the country are getting ready to start a new academic year. [More than 136,000 teaching assistants were employed in the most recent count by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.]

Many of those teaching assistants are new and will be attending orientation sessions as part of their preparation.

For more than a dozen years, I’ve been a presenter at the University of Florida’s orientation for new teaching assistants, sponsored by the Graduate School and the Teacher Center. I really enjoy helping the more than 400 new TAs each year be better prepared for success in their teaching.

Here are five suggestions for how to maximize your experience as you attend a new teacher orientation. 

#1 – Consider the questions you have about teaching in general and your teaching assignment.

You’ll be more engaged in the sessions if you consider those sessions as a way of answering questions you have about teaching. So before going to the orientation, make a list of questions you have…and then add to your list as other questions occur to you as you participate in the orientation.

Some of your questions might be:

  • How will I be evaluated as a teaching assistant?
  • How can I keep students engaged in class and not being distracted by their phones or laptops?
  • How can I avoid having discipline problems in class?

By having a list of questions, you’ll be listening for answers to your questions. You also can pose some of your questions during Q&A time or ask your questions in conversations with other TAs or your faculty supervisor.

#2 – Review the materials you receive before the orientation.

You will receive an agenda for the orientation and may, as is true at the University of Florida, receive a link to a handbook for teaching assistants. Review those materials because reading through those materials can help raise questions you might not have considered.

For example:

  • What adjustments do I need to make for students who need accommodations?
  • Am I responsible for holding office hours, and, if so, what does that involve?
  • What course management system (CMS) is used by the university/college?

#3 – During the orientation, take notes and save materials.

Being attentative during the new teaching orientation can be challenging because such sessions can last several hours – or even several days. You are receiving lots of information and, typically, doing lots of sitting and listening. Sometimes the information you’re hearing about seems so abstract, like dealing with academic honesty issues.

As the school year progresses, you’ll realize how many of the topics discussed at the orientation are, in fact, part of your teaching experience. So avoid the temptation to slip away onto your smartphone or laptop – messaging friends or checking online to learn about local restaurants.

Stay tuned in, taking notes of key information or adding to your list of questions about teaching. Save the materials you receive in a folder (paper or digital) for reference as needed.

#4 – Meet other new teaching assistants.

Make a point of connecting with other new teaching assistants. If you are attending a large group orientation, you could remain anonymous. But you don’t want to do that. The orientation is an opportunity to get to know other teaching assistants.

Initiate conversations with TAs sitting near you. What field of study are they in? What course will they be teaching? What are they looking forward to and what are they concerned about? Have they taught before? If so, what advice do they have for new TAs?

If it seems appropriate, exchange contact info and consider the possibility of getting together for coffee when the terms begins. You may find it very helpful to have other TAs to talk with about your teaching experience and to share questions and strategies. Sometimes you may feel more at ease talking about your teaching with TAs who aren’t in the TA cohort in your own department or college.

#5 – Analyze the presentations at the orientation in terms of teaching qualities.

In addition to listening to the information provided during the orientation, pay attention to how those presentations are made. You’re going to be teaching, and a good way to improve your own teaching is to analyze others’ teaching and identify qualities that are positive and negative.

  • Is the presentation well organized? Does the presenter encourage active engagement – thinking about issues or participation in discussion.
  • Notice the use of voice (volume and tone), movement and gestures, and the tempo of the presentation.
  • If slides are used, how effective is their use? Too many? Too much information on a slide? Does the size of the type or the color scheme make the slides difficult to read?

Keep in mind that the university has designed the orientation with information they think you’re going to need as a new teaching assistant. Even if you’ve taught elsewhere, the resources and policies at your new institution may be different.

I’d be interested in hearing what you consider to be something helpful you learned at the orientation you attended for new teachers.

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