Teaching Assistants

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.

Georgetown Resources

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.

Getting Started

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:

  • Degree to which (and in which circumstances) TAs get to make choices about course material, teaching approaches, grading, assignments, etc.
  • Roles of professor and TAs during class sessions
  • Roles of professor and TAs during discussion sessions, labs, and/or review sessions (if any)
  • Who will be designing test questions and other forms of assessments
  • Who’s responsible for grading what
  • How grading should be conducted by TAs (if relevant), including any rubrics that the professor wants TAs to use
  • Whether TAs should plan to have office hours
  • If there are multiple TAs: how responsibilities will be distributed, and whether there’s any hierarchy of authority among TAs, or any expectation/possibility of collaboration between them Whether TAs will be evaluated and, if so, when, how, and by whom (including the possibility of being included on student evaluations)

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 her/his 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.

During the Semester

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).

Mentorship

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.

  • Meeting regularly with TAs is helpful in keeping the course on track; it’s also an occasion for debriefing and getting perspective: the professor can openly discuss her/his recent teaching choices and the philosophies behind those choices. These conversations are also a good time to explore the TA’s immediate and long-term pedagogical goals, strategies, and experiences.
  • If the schedule will allow it, the teaching assistant could run a class session or two on her/his own, perhaps going so far as choosing the readings and topic. If this is possible, rather than seeing it as a chance to take the day off, the professor can sit in and quietly take notes. After the session, the two should meet to discuss the things that went well and the things that could have gone better. This experience will also be useful if the teaching assistant ever needs a letter of recommendation from the professor down the road, as it’ll give the professor first-hand experience to write about.
  • Professors will often develop or come across valuable teaching resources—talks, workshops, websites, rubrics—and these can be passed along to the teaching assistant. Not only does this provide concrete resources for the TA, it also underscores the importance of growing and developing as a teacher in an ongoing way.

The TA in the Middle

The teaching assistant is in an unusual position, situated in some sense between the professor and the students. S/he is a liaison and something of a representative 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 s/he talks 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.

General Guidelines

For the best possible working relationship, professors should: aim for clarity in instructions but be explicitly open to questions from TAs aim for transparency in course decisions communicate regularly with TAs encourage TA initiative while keeping tabs on things maintain and model an investment in the students in the class model professionalism remember that TAs are also students and are trying to balance their teaching and research take an interest in TAs’ development as teachers

TAs should: ask questions when things are unclear or when unexpected difficulties occur be hungry to learn about teaching and pay critical attention to the pedagogical choices made by the professor; take notes toward the teacher the TA wants to become communicate regularly with the professor strive for professionalism in every encounter * take initiative

End of the Semester

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.

Feedback for TAs

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.

Additional Resources

Resources for Professors Working with Teaching Assistants:

Resources for Teaching Assistants:

Please reach out to us at cndls@georgetown.edu if you'd like to have a conversation with someone at CNDLS about these or other teaching issues.