The presence of teaching assistants in courses has become so commonplace that we might be tempted to give that aspect of the class little thought—we might just assume TAs will lead discussion sections or labs and do some grading and call it a day. But a teaching assistant can play a very important role in the course, and can gain a lot from (and contribute a lot to) the experience, especially if the responsibilities and relationships (between TA and students, between TA and professor) are approached with intention by both parties.
Graduate students at Georgetown have the opportunity to take a variety of workshops about teaching through the Apprenticeship in Teaching Program. Interested students can participate in these workshops in an a la carte fashion, attending the sessions that interest them most, or they can pursue a certificate by fulfilling the requirements of the program. Also see our list of additional resources at the bottom of the page for more ideas and thoughts.
Georgetown Professor Heidi Elmendorf on what makes a good Teaching Assistant.
It’s common practice (and good practice) for the professor and the teaching assistant(s) to meet—perhaps multiple times—before the semester begins. For one thing, this is an opportunity to discuss expectations:
This is also an opportunity to **discuss teaching philosophy and strategies more generally**, with an eye toward mentoring the TA. (See the Mentoring section below.) Before the semester the professor should give a sense of their educational approach, pedagogical values, and goals for the course, so that the TA can help reinforce these efforts. (And if the professor doesn’t provide this sense spontaneously, the TA should ask questions.) You don’t want situations where TAs and professors are pushing in different directions—one toward a collaborative working style and the other toward working alone, for example, or one emphasizing a certain method of problem-solving or paper-writing, etc., that the other dismisses. Disagreements between professor and TA can be productive—they can illustrate the range of views that exist in any field—but there’s a difference between complexity, on the one hand, and contradiction, confusion, and/or incoherence on the other.
A final thought on pre-semester conversations: however thoroughly you think you covered things, it’s enormously helpful if everyone understands that this will be a work-in-progress. It’s important to keep meetings going throughout the semester, as well as lines of open communication between TA and professor.
As previously mentioned, it’s best to have a regular meeting time all semester long. If there are multiple TAs, you may want a single group meeting, or you may want one-on-one meetings between the professor and each TA, or you may want group and one-on-one meetings. Probably this will depend on how much consistency and collaboration is expected between TAs, and also on how much individual mentoring professors want to do.
In these meetings, the professor and TAs can discuss recent sessions of the course and discussion sections, logistics, and upcoming course events. The professor can coach TAs through lesson-planning labs or discussion sections, asking about goals for the sessions, plans for time management, approaches to handling challenging conversations, and so on. In addition, there may be a need to schedule more meetings during big grading pushes or when unexpected problems or questions arise.
As far as grading is concerned, it’ll be important for the professor to communicate grading standards and priorities for the TA to apply; it’s not good if one party is concerned primarily with grammar and spelling, say, and the other wants the main focus to be on the grasp of key concepts. It may also be helpful to debrief afterward. The professor can review some of the grading done by the teaching assistant before it gets handed back to the students, to make sure it matches the professor’s intentions and also to foment discussion about the process of grading and the outcome of this particular assignment among the students. That way everyone will have a clearer idea of how the class is going. Finally, discussion will probably be necessary if a student disputes a grade.
All parties should also bear in mind that, although teaching assistants are themselves valuable resources, there will be circumstances where still other resources will be needed. It’s a good idea for the TA to be familiar with (and encouraged to refer students to) tutoring and psychological services on campus (such as, at Georgetown, the Academic Resource Center, the Writing Center, the Title IX Coordinator, and Counseling and Psychiatric Services).
The word “assistant” in “teaching assistant” can lead us to think of TAs merely as helpers, there to make the current course go more smoothly. It’s important to remember, though, that most TAs are contemplating (or actively pursuing) a future that involves teaching, and the situation at hand offers important opportunities for mentorship.
Teaching assistants are in an unusual position, situated in some sense between the professor and the students. They are liaisons and something like representatives for each. Adding to this picture is the fact that, in most cases, the TA is between the ages of the students and the professor, and often closer to the students’ ages. This has advantages, because it may encourage students to approach the TA about things they might be less comfortable broaching with the professor. On the downside, this closeness in age can make it harder for the TA to establish authority in the classroom, and this issue could be worth addressing; the professor can do a lot to reinforce a teaching assistant’s authority in the way they talk about that TA with students, and the TA can do a lot as well, with attention to professionalism in everything ranging from dress to email communications to classroom management. Professionalism also helps to prevent confusion about the nature of the relationship between TAs and students, which should be friendly but not actually friendship.
One danger to prepare for: students can (intentionally or unintentionally) create interactions that pit teaching assistants and professors against one another. For example, a student might approach the TA to get clarification on a grade given by the professor, or to ask for clarification of something said in class, but the student’s questions can easily turn into complaints. Sometimes the TA will agree with the student’s concerns, and other times not. Either way, it’s a good idea for the professor and TA to discuss beforehand how to handle situations like this one.
For the best possible working relationship, professors should:
If debriefing is important throughout the semester, it certainly remains important at the end of the semester. For one thing, TAs who have worked closely with students all semester long may be able to contribute to decisions about final grades, particularly in borderline cases, and at the very least they’ll want to know how final grades came out.
There are also lots of big-picture questions to explore, whether immediately after the conclusion of the class or somewhat later: How did the class go? What were the significant pedagogical choices and moments, and how successful were they? In a future version of the class, in what ways would the professor keep the course the same, and what changes would the professor make? Did the TA notice anything that the professor might have missed? Here the professor can model a thoughtful process of evaluating the recent course and planning for future iterations; this is yet another invitation to engage in mentorship. It’s also a chance for TAs to give the professor feedback on how they think the course went. It’s important that professors make TAs feel comfortable and safe to provide their opinions.
Sometimes the professor is able to include a question about the teaching assistant on the student evaluation forms (this is allowed at Georgetown), generating feedback that can both help and potentially overwhelm TAs. Once again, this is an appropriate time for the professor, who presumably has more experience interpreting and making use of student evaluations, to provide guidance.
Certainly it’s an appropriate time for the professor to give feedback. Hopefully the lines of communication will have been open all semester long, so that there won’t be any enormous shocks coming in this kind of conversation. That said, there may not have been time until now for a larger, “in sum” kind of discussion to take place.
Whatever form the feedback takes, it’s important that the TA get some. They will likely be teaching again and need to improve. They also need to see that a semester is always an opportunity to reflect on one’s successes and areas in need of improvement, whatever one’s role is in the classroom.
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