Departments employing TAs have a responsibility to provide those TAs with the support they require. Although all programs may not officially designate someone by the title "faculty advisor," they all should designate a person to whom TAs may go with questions or problems.
Your assignment as a TA will determine the nature of your relationship with your advisor. If you have been assigned to teach a recitation or lab section, or to grade papers, the faculty member who teaches the lecture section of the class will usually be the person to whom you go with your problems. In courses where there are multiple TAs, it is absolutely necessary to work closely to coordinate class methods and goals—how the class will be shaped, what kinds of exercises and tests will be used—so that each TA?s assignments will be consistent with the rest. If you are a section teacher in a multi-sectioned course, there may be a course coordinator who can help you.
Those TAs teaching single-section upper level courses for which there is no apparent advisor should approach the department chair, who will act as advisor or may recommend another faculty member more knowledgeable about that particular course. Establish a link between yourself, your course, and the department at the beginning of the semester to insure yourself of the assistance you require throughout the semester and to let the department know that you are interested in doing everything possible to make the course a good one. Clearly, your TA assignment will determine how much contact you have with your advisor; some TAs will be fairly independent while others will work very closely with him or her.
By talking to your advisor before the beginning of the semester, clear guidelines about responsibilities can be established. Decisions about testing, grading, content, and division of work may be made at this time. The TA can learn what the departmental expectations for the course are and what freedom the TA has in designing or determining the shape of the course. Discussing these issues beforehand eliminates what could develop into serious problems later in the semester. A TA telling the class one thing and the faculty member telling it something different can lead to confusion in the class and tension between the TA and faculty member.
Be honest and open with your advisor, but also be polite. At times, you may find yourself in the middle, between the students and the advisor. Do not feel that you have to relay every critical statement that one makes to the other. This is not your job. However, you should be prepared to act as a liaison when there are serious complaints. The instructor should be informed when a majority of students have what seem to be valid complaints about the way the course is being conducted. A word to the instructor can defuse what could turn into an explosive situation. Be tactful, of course. No one wants to be told that he or she is a bad teacher.
Constructive criticism from your advisor can help you in your professional development; accept this criticism gracefully and maturely. Course advisors recognize that TAs are apprentice teachers and may benefit from their greater experience. They are a helpful and valuable resource, one which should not be overlooked or ignored.
There are few people in the university who can help you as much on a day to day basis as your department's administrator. They are the people who best understand those university procedures through which you will have to wend your way. If you are not sure about something—whom to call, when a deadline falls, or how to get some needed information—in most cases, the department administrators will have the answer. Of course, do not burden the administrators with problems that you can figure out for yourself because most of them already have their hands full, but when you are really at a loss, they will almost certainly steer you in the right direction.
Most of the problems faced by international TAs are the same problems faced by U.S. TAs, but because international TAs are not only new to Rutgers and to teaching but also to this country, it is possible that some unique concerns may trouble them.
Perhaps the greatest concern of international TAs is language. They worry that they will not be able to understand their students or that their students will not be able to understand them. This is, of course, a very real concern and one that can lessen only as the TA gains experience as a speaker of English. To hasten the process, TAs should try to immerse themselves in the language: listen to television and radio; read American newspapers and magazines; speak English as often as possible, seeking out native speakers with whom to practice speaking and listening skills.
Knowing what to expect in the classroom may make the first months easier. Be aware of the fact that your accent may be unfamiliar to many of your undergraduates (90% of your students are from New Jersey, a state which has its own distinct brands of regional English), so you should speak slowly to give them a chance to get used to your accented English. When you introduce yourself on the first day (being sure to write your name on the blackboard), you may wish to tell the students what country you are from and why you are here at Rutgers. Students who understand a little about a person's culture and background are more willing to give that person a chance and make the small exertion necessary to understand an unfamiliar accent.
Let your students know that you care about them and are interested in them. You may wish to explain that you hope the classroom will be a kind of partnership where both parties have something to offer. You look to them for help with correcting any initial difficulties you may have with the language. They can look to you for expertise in the subject you are teaching. Working together, you can both benefit.
Make it clear to the students that you expect them to let you know when they don't understand something you say, and promise to do the same for them. If a student asks you a question you do not understand, ask the student to rephrase it. Don't worry that saying you don't understand will compromise your authority; pretending to understand when you clearly do not will do much more to undermine your authority and lose your students' respect. During the first few weeks at least, pause often to ask students if they are following you, if they have any questions, and wait for an answer. Let them know that you really do want them to tell you when they are having difficulties. Make sure that during your lectures you write all key words on the board so that you are sure the students are understanding them correctly.
To avoid having students use your accent against you, i.e., telling you that they misunderstood you so they did not complete their homework or study for a test (do not worry, very few students will do things like this), give the students handouts detailing all assignments or write them on the blackboard so there can be no misunderstanding. A clear and detailed syllabus will prevent many of these problems.
American students may seem very different from students in other countries. International TAs are sometimes shocked at first by what they perceive as a lack of respect towards them as teachers. Understanding some of the differences in American students may help to alleviate this shock. One way of doing so would be by sitting in on some undergraduate courses in the university during your first weeks as a TA. This will allow you to see the varieties of accepted classroom behavior and the kinds of student/teacher relationships common in this country.
In the United States students come from a wide range of backgrounds. Some of your students may be older than you expect; many will be holding part-time, or even full-time, jobs. The dress and manner of your students may be quite casual; do not interpret this as a sign of disrespect. Classrooms are sometimes quite informal. American students will often question or even disagree with something the teacher says. This is accepted classroom behavior and is not meant hostilely or as a challenge to the teacher's authority; the class is perceived as a dialogue rather than a monologue.
You will probably make some mistakes. Try to laugh at them and make them work to your benefit. By demonstrating to the students that you care and by displaying enthusiasm for your subject, you can limit the number of problems you encounter in your first few months as a TA.
Class preparation, grading, and your own graduate work will all place competing demands on your time. To avoid a crisis situation, draw up some general rules at the beginning of the semester. You may not always be able to keep them, but you should try to adopt them as general guides. Among the kinds of guidelines that you may wish to consider:
When you establish priorities (and sometimes you must), remember your own graduate work. Your first responsibility at the university is your graduate work, and, thinking practically, you must realize that the assistantship is dependent upon successful completion of your own courses.
Do not let work pile up. When you receive a set of papers to be graded, don't toss them into a corner until the time comes when you can do them all at once—that time will never come. Large blocks of free time are extremely difficult to find once the semester gets underway. Instead, calculate how many papers you would have to read every day in order to return them within a reasonable time (perhaps one week), and then find that much time. If you have thirty students in a class, reading four or five papers each day would finish the task in a week.
Be ready to ask for help. If, as the semester progresses, you find yourself consistently behind in both your graduate work and your teaching, it is time to reassess your methods. Speak to your faculty advisor about your problems.
Stephanie Donato, a career development and placement specialist, offers the following helpful hints:
Rank all tasks in their order of importance. This will give you a realistic perspective on the tasks you face;
Make an outline of all deadlines you must meet before the end of the semester. This relieves pressure; rather than worrying about all of the deadlines, you can focus more sharply on the imminent ones;
Enter all tasks and deadlines in a date book or calendar; highlight them with a bright yellow marker;
Looking at this date book or calendar daily will allow you to maintain a realistic notion of what remains to be done. Write a reminder two weeks before each deadline so that you may plan accordingly, allowing yourself enough lead time to complete each task;
Flag important dates in the date book or calendar;
Make a daily "to-do" list. Every day, before you begin your work, look at this list. Handle the most critical tasks first;
Manage interruptions. Do not let yourself be deterred from major tasks by email, telephone calls, or other distractions.
Your class seems to be going smoothly. The students obviously like you. You feel pretty confident. In spite of this, you recognize the fact that there is always room for improvement, so you would like to get a second opinion. You may not be the best judge of your own effectiveness as a teacher, especially so early in the semester. Many instructors, therefore, welcome an evaluation during the first third or half of the term. This is a good idea for all teachers, because to wait until the end of the semester for an evaluation of your teaching performance is to put your students at risk.
What the students say on the final evaluation or how they do on their final exam or paper may permit you to draw some conclusions about your teaching, but if the conclusion is that your teaching was ineffective, it is certainly too late to repair the damage.
Some departments have already established a system for evaluating TAs, while in others the TA may have to initiate the process. Do not view evaluations as an intrusion or a punishment but as a means to enable you to become a better teacher. TAs are often surprised at how a seemingly simple comment can make a big difference in the effectiveness of their teaching. No one is born knowing all the tricks of a teacher—some are intuitive, some stumbled upon, and some passed from teacher to teacher during an evaluation. Since all methods of evaluation have their limitations, do not consider one negative comment a condemnation of your teaching. Do not be demoralized or depressed by negative evaluations. They do not mean that you are a poor teacher; however, they can be a means of helping you to become a better one. A single comment should not be given too much weight; several that focus on the same problem should be given serious thought.
Different departments have different ways of handling class observations, but the most common form is the faculty evaluation. Most typically, you will meet with the faculty member both before and after the observation. At the meeting before the class, discuss your goals for the class. Ask the observer what he or she will be considering in the evaluation. Provide the observer with your course syllabus, a list of all assignments, and a copy of any readings to be used in the observed class.
So that the students do not feel uncomfortable because of the presence of the evaluator, you may want to explain beforehand to the students that there will be an observer in the class but that the person is there to evaluate you and not them. On the day of the observation you may wish to introduce the observer to your class, but some instructors prefer not to, letting the evaluator enter and be seated without comment. Although you may feel nervous, try to conduct your class in the usual manner.
Schedule another appointment with the observer as soon as possible after the day of the observation. At this meeting, your stated goals are discussed in relation to your actual performance. Your strengths and weaknesses as a teacher will be discussed, and some general comments about your teaching style may be added. In addition, some evaluators provide the instructor with a written summary of the observation.
If your department does not provide this kind of formal one-to-one observation, you might ask a faculty member to observe your class. Someone who is currently teaching or has previously taught the course would be a good choice.
Some TAs feel more comfortable in setting up peer evaluations. Peer evaluations can be structured in much the same way that faculty/TA evaluations are. You and another TA or, perhaps, a group of TAs can observe each other's classes. Observing other TAs gives you a sense of what they are doing with the same materials and may help you to see their mistakes and learn from them.
It is generally useful to have the students' opinion about your teaching as the semester unfolds. The university student rating forms are usually completed at the end of the semester, but this is too late for you to do anything to redeem that semester. Some teachers pass out index cards at regular intervals in the semester so that the students can tell them how they are doing as a teacher. Consider preparing your own evaluation form, or using or modifying our mid-semester evaluation form, to give to the students during the first third or half of the semester.
In your first semester of teaching or serving as a TA, you should begin to collect materials for a teaching portfolio. A teaching portfolio provides a profile of you as a teacher. It is a solid collection of evidence detailing the effectiveness of your teaching and reflections on that evidence.
An increasing number of colleges and universities are using teaching portfolios to help them make hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions. A teaching portfolio can also help faculty members write reference letters for you, as they will be able to read exactly how and why you've been teaching and tailor their reference letters accordingly. While a teaching portfolio can help you get a job, it can also help with teaching awards and research grants. With time, a teaching portfolio will document the evolution of your teaching and will aid your personal and professional development.
For every course you teach, you should take notes that describe the course, how you taught it, and why you taught it the way you did. Gather syllabi, copies of any assignments you created, including exams and paper topics, and any handouts you made. Your portfolio should also include evaluations of your teaching. In addition to student ratings or evaluations, you can ask a faculty member to observe your class and write an evaluation. If you attend a workshop, take a course related to teaching, or participate in any other activities to improve your pedagogical skills, document it in your portfolio. Evidence of an interest in teaching and efforts to develop your teaching skills may make you stand out as a job candidate. For more information on the teaching portfolio, visit the Center for Teaching Advancement & Assessment Research's (CTAAR) Teaching Portfolio webpage.