Tips for First-Time Teaching Assistants
November 2006 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
My first time serving as a teaching assistant (TA) was for the MIT Computer Science course 6.170: Laboratory in Software Engineering in Spring 2006. Here are some thoughts I recalled from my experience that might help other first-time TAs.
Tip 1: Don't let the students know it's your first time
Be well-prepared on the first day of class (and of course on all subsequent days), and don't let anybody know that it's your first time teaching. If students know that you're a first-timer, they will subconsciously find more faults in your presentation, complain more to you, and have a less favorable image of you in general. They're not trying to be mean on purpose; it's just human nature. If the students have more respect for you as an authority figure, then your job will be easier, so just walk in there on your first day and teach confidently like you're a veteran. Never be apologetic in your tone, saying things like "sorry for my bad handwriting, it's my first time teaching," because students will immediately sniff out a newbie.
Tip 2: Learn everyone's name as quickly as possible
Students feel good about their TA when he/she can fluently address them by their first names. They think that TAs who simply point and say "you, back there!" or, even worse, ask "what's your name again?" for the 10th time when handing back graded problem sets simply don't care about them. Yes, it does take some effort to learn everyone's names, and you'll have to ask everyone to repeat their names several times during the first few classes, but once you remember them all, it's so great to be able to greet everyone as individuals and not as "hey you!"
If your department provides a roster of students along with their photos, take the time to memorize what everyone looks like before the first class, so that when students introduce themselves, you can immediately make the connection between their photos and how they look in real life. This will help you to more easily associate names with faces and allow you to start calling them by their names sooner. Your students are more likely to be on your side if you actually take the effort to learn their names as quickly as possible, and they can sense the apathy and insincerity if you don't.
Tip 3: When you are talking in front of the class, make eye contact with everyone, but expect a fair amount of blank stares and even some people falling asleep
Don't simply talk to the chalkboard or to the wall behind your students. Glance around and look them in the eye as you are talking, scanning around to focus on different students so that you don't seem to always be staring at one person the whole time. When writing on the chalkboard, adopt an open stance and face the class as much as possible instead of having your back to them. This will prevent you from mumbling to the board and actually force you to engage your students and notice when there are questions or points of confusion.
Actually, the first thing I noticed when I scanned around my classroom was how many blank stares and grim faces met my eyes. Everyone looked totally numb, and one or two people would be dozing off or asleep. I became very self-conscious because I felt that I was boring everyone to sleep, but I later realized that most people don't have animated smiles on their faces in the middle of class, so the expressions I was seeing were more-or-less normal. Think about it: most of the time when you are paying attention in class, you are staring straight at the TA or the blackboard without any look on your face, but inside your head, you are thinking and absorbing the material. Thus, blank stares don't necessarily mean that students are bored; the face of a bored student and the face of an attentive student often look quite similar. Also, it's inevitable that some people are going to doze off and fall asleep in class; it's nothing personal. If EVERYONE falls asleep, however, then you've got bigger problems.
Tip 4: Periodically check for understanding and attention
Because you will often receive blank stares while you are talking in front of the class, you need to periodically stop every few minutes and check whether the class is following along with you. This might involve asking a technical question or simply pausing and asking the class "do you all understand this part?" and waiting for nodding or shaking heads. If you want to find out who does not understand, don't simply request, "if you don't understand, please raise your hand," because that might single out and embarrass some students; instead, be a bit self-deprecating and say something like, "I found this topic to be really confusing when I first learned it, and many people have trouble grasping the details, so does anyone want me to go over it again?"
Tip 5: Pause for a long time after asking questions
Many people advise TAs to ask questions in class to increase the level of interaction, but oftentimes, TAs don't pause for long enough after asking questions before simply jumping in and providing the answer. Students need time to think about non-trivial questions, so wait 7-10 seconds before jumping in. Those 7-10 seconds will feel long and awkward, but just slowly glance around the room during that waiting time and gauge what the students are up to (are they paying attention, scratching their heads, half-asleep, fully-asleep?) and hopefully someone will answer before time is up. If nobody answers, then you need to prod them along by either asking a simpler question, trying to provide some hints, or simply providing the answer.
Tip 6: Have a plan for what to do when nobody participates in class
You will inevitably face situations in the classroom when nobody is in the mood to participate or to say anything in response to your questions. What do you do? You need a game plan. Do you start cold-calling people? Do you simply press on and lecture more? Whatever you decide to do is up to you, but don't freak out or get flustered. You won't get sympathy from the students if you do, so just be prepared for this scenario.
Tip 7: Don't make any exceptions to the course rules without first consulting the instructor
If you bend the rules for one student, word will spread and other students will ask you to bend the rules as well, citing that you already bent the rule for one person so it's not fair if you don't bend it for him/her. The easiest way to prevent yourself from getting into these stressful situations is to simply be a hard-ass and make NO EXCEPTIONS without first consulting the instructor. (Obviously, for emergency situations like if a student needs medical care during an exam, don't just refuse and say "uh, class rules, you can't leave the exam room until you're finished!")
If the TAs can each interpret and bend the rules in their own ways, then students will be wicked pissed if they find out that their TA isn't as lenient as someone else's TA. To reduce variation between TAs, everyone needs to be a hard-ass and not bend the rules. Just let the instructor have the final word and responsibility on student requests to bend the rules.
Tip 8: Don't become friends (or more) with your students
Don't make friends with your students, don't flirt with your students, don't date your students, don't go out to party with your students, don't be as liberal in talking to your students as you would with your friends, etc... For as long as you are their TA, you are NOT their friend. If you have friends taking your class, try to transfer them to another TA to prevent a conflict of interest. Even if you promise to perform your job with the utmost of integrity and honesty, you don't want to put yourself in awkward situations where you can't be as objective as possible in evaluating your students. You will make certain students feel left out or discriminated against if you act more chummy and joke around with some students but not with others, which might raise accusations of favoritism on your part.
However, this tip does NOT mean that you cannot be nice to your students. It's definitely possible to be friendly, polite, sympathetic, and caring to your students without crossing the line to become their friend. I would encourage you as the TA to be more human and down-to-earth because, chances are, the professors are going to seem pretty distant to the students, and you are the first person students turn to for help.
Tip 9: Be careful to not make off-color remarks or gestures
It's good to be casual and down-to-earth with your students, but don't get too comfortable. Don't interact with your students with the same comfort level as you would with, say, your close friends, because you are an authority figure in front of the classroom. Don't make any remarks or gestures, even in jest, that could be construed as remotely offensive to someone's gender, race, culture, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or other sensitive topics. (You know what's safe to do in front of your friends, but you don't know your students nearly as well.) For example, don't say that something is "gay" or "retarded"; opt for less politically-charged terms like "different" or "silly". Sure, you might sound a bit like Mr. Rogers, but if you carry yourself well, people won't notice that you're talking like Mr. Rogers. Remember, the repercussions for using offensive language are far more serious.
Tip 10: Realize that most students are not putting nearly as much time or effort into this class as you are
Put yourself in the students' shoes, and you can better understand how they act towards you and the class in general. You are TAing one class and devoting a significant amount of time and energy to it. The students are taking 3 or 4 (or more) other classes, so for them, this class is only one out of many priorities they have during the term. Thus, they probably won't be super enthusiastic about this particular class, which is okay because, chances are, you probably weren't super enthusiastic about every class you've ever taken either.
If you acknowledge this imbalance of priorities between you and your students, then you won't get as annoyed when students don't seem to be paying too much attention in the classroom or in getting their work done to certain standards of quality you'd expect. Lots of students don't turn in high-quality work not because they are incapable of doing so, but simply because they haven't devoted enough time and effort to a particular class since their priorities were elsewhere.
Tip 11: Don't preach or otherwise strongly impose your own viewpoints
Your job is to convey facts about the class's subject matter, not your personal opinions. If you feel that some topic X is lame because you know of something better that's outside the scope of the class, don't snidely remark, "oh, by the way, X sucks, do what I do, it's better!" If one of the purposes of the class is to explain why X sucks, then of course you should discuss it, but otherwise, it is irresponsible to preach dogma to your students. It is an abuse of your power to impose your viewpoints on your students, who will most likely feel hesitant to challenge you and accept your views as true because, after all, you are supposedly the expert. Your job is to enlighten by passing on knowledge, not to further ignorance by preaching dogma.