Working as a Graduate TA by Michelle Barbeau, San Diego State
Let’s rewind to a few years ago.
I had just graduated college and had dreams of becoming a high school English teacher. But I became an editor instead. I felt too young and inexperienced to teach 18 year olds at the ripe age of 21. Funny thing is – I’m now 24 years old and teaching college! This is the beauty of graduate school. Most grad schools strongly encourage students to give back by teaching the freshmen in their respective discipline. Sometimes it’s just a breakout section that’s supplementary to a GE course, and sometimes it involves teaching your own course, which is what I’m currently doing.
Most TAs get paid. But don’t become too excited. It won’t pay the bills (at least not all of them). In my case, it’s just $350/month. In other cases, it’ll pay your tuition, which is like a salary in and of itself. But regardless of any monetary incentives, the experience will produce many intangibles that you can’t put a price tag on.
Here are some things I’ve learned in my two semesters of teaching freshman reading and writing:
- The first day. The whole summer before my first semester of teaching, I had dreams and even nightmares of what would actually happen when I walked into the classroom. Could I handle it? Would I even be cut out for teaching? What if I said some cockamamie thing in class and my students caught on? The good news is that the actual teaching part of it is much easier than I thought it would be! If you are good at explaining things and have any experiencing tutoring, it will come pretty naturally. Within 10 minutes of the first day, my heart stopped beating through my shirt.
- Start off strict. As a new teacher, you want your students to like you. In fact, you want them to love you. You don’t want to be the teacher on ratemyprofessor.com with low ratings and no chili peppers. But the fact of the matter is, you can’t manage a classroom that knows you’re easy to take advantage of. Every seasoned professor I’ve spoken with has said to come off a little serious and even stern the first few weeks, then blossom into a more nurturing, understanding figure as the semester progresses.
- The syllabus.Think of your syllabus as a contract. Your students are bound to it. It’s better to over-explain your policies than try to simplify them. My first syllabus was five pages! Include the essentials: a course description, your office hours, an attendance policy, a statement about plagiarism, and some sort of calendar with assignment due dates clearly outlined. BTW: It’s so cool to see your own name on the class schedule and a syllabus for the first time!
- Helpful technology. Nowadays, most schools have some sort of web-based software teachers can use to post resources, manage the grading process, and communicate with their students outside of class. Try to take advantage of this. Your classroom may also be equipped with a computer and fancy projector. Find a way to use them. I like to play YouTube videos to get a free write going or catch their attention as they enter the classroom.
- Your title. What should they call you? Professor? Your first name? Your last name? My mentor told me you should never go by your first name; students may consider you more of a friend than an authority figure. But “professor” (although you technically are one) is just plain weird without having a PhD. I opted for a middle ground. My students call me “Ms. B.”
- Workload. It’s hard to balance teaching with grad school classes and, in my case, a part-time job too. One way to save time is to have your students do small assignments, like free writes and quizzes, in a journal. That way you can collect their journals periodically and grade this less significant stuff in batches. Also, bring your own homework to office hours. Sadly, few students visit office hours, so you might as well make the time productive for yourself.
- Prepare for the unexpected. Be ready for days when your lesson plan will have to be thrown out the door. Your students could forget to bring their books. They could “forget” to do the reading. The projector might not be working to show that awesome chart you worked on all weekend. Have a backup plan. I always resort to grammar lessons, because I can pull those off the top of my head.
- Dress the part. You’re young. Go for the business casual look. I’ve seen teachers wear jeans, but you want to set yourself apart in the classroom, since your age won’t quite do it. This is especially true for women. P.S. Don’t wear a skirt above the knees!
- Disciplining. The first time you have to get the class to stop talking and listen to you–it’s really hard! You’ll try to talk over them, but that makes it worse. Just stand in front until they notice. After a few times, it’ll become second nature (almost fun to exhibit your power). For individual behavior issues, like someone who texts in class or has excessive tardiness, it may be more appropriate to send an email or talk to them after class. Emphasize that their participation grades are heavily affected by these disrespectful actions.
Take any opportunity you can to teach while you’re in graduate school. It’s an excellent experience. It looks great on the resume, and it will build your speaking/leadership skills. And, at the very least, you’ll get funny stories out of it. So far, I’ve had a student who said he was so stressed out that he’s going bald, a student who asked me for help reading her bank statement, and a student who admitted he Googled me and found out I was French. Teaching is full of surprises.