Tips for the First-Time TA

For many first-year graduate students, the advent of the school year brings all the promise of new experiences, new knowledge, and new challenges. Among the most nerve-racking of these challenges is the prospect of working as a teacher’s assistant for the first time. This August marks the eighth new school year that I have faced as a graduate student and also the beginning of my eighth year as an educator in higher ed. Here at the University of Colorado, we have a program for graduate students that helps to prepare them for the responsibility of teaching. The Graduate Teacher Program (GTP) helps students to develop their own teaching pedagogy and to become familiar with the variety of methods that they may employ to impart their knowledge to their students. At the beginning of each semester, the GTP hosts a three-day long “intensive” for graduate students that consists of many different workshops. I was fortunate enough to be invited to conduct a workshop that helped set expectations for first-time Teaching Assistants. I fancy that I received this invitation based on the wealth of experience that I have accumulated in my time at CU, but it was more likely an act of desperation rather than adulation. Regardless, I received a lot of positive feedback about this workshop, and so, I pass along the major points that I presented to the group of new and returning graduate instructors.

Before Your First Day of Teaching:

Communicate with the instructor. Often, this is the most important part of setting up a good semester. In my experience, all instructors are happy to meet and lay out the main objectives of the semester. All of the professors for whom I have taught have made it a point to meet before the semester and to give the teaching assistants the books and materials for the course. From your meeting with the instructor, you will have a fairly good sense of the scope and breadth of the course, the expectations of the instructor, and the role that you will play in the course. To this end, it is important to understand what your role is.

At the University of Colorado, we have a few different roles for graduate student instructors. As a TA, the most common is to be a “grader.” As a grader, the TA is required to attend the classes, take notes, and to grade papers and exams. Generally, this is a pretty easy gig. In History, there are usually only a few assignments and two to three exams. The workload for a grader is pretty light but punctuated by some big grading pushes when midterms and finals are given.

A step up from the grader role is that of a Recitation Instructor. This role has all of the same responsibilities as the grader but includes the responsibility of conducting a recitation class beyond the lecture. Recitation Instructors are usually responsible for one to two recitation sections of 25 to 35 students. The professor for this class usually conducts the lectures—to a very large class—and the recitation instructors are responsible for teaching some more pointed material or specific skills to small groups of students. The Recitation Instructor will need to commit quite a bit more time and energy to this role. Being in front of a class is hard and it takes a lot of intellectual and emotional bandwidth. Additionally, I recommend that people prepare to excess any time they have to get in front of a class. Preparation is the best way to combat stage fright or the jitters that we all feel getting in front of a class of students.

Finally, there is the Graduate Part-Time Instructor (GPTI). If you talk to your advisor and they inform you that you will be working as a GPTI, and you weren’t expecting this, or you don’t have any experience in front of a class, you may have larger problems. The GPTI is the instructor of record for a course and this position is reserved for more senior graduate students.

Check out your classroom. In addition to meeting with the professor, I recommend checking out the classroom in which you will be teaching. This is especially important if you will be lecturing or in front of the class. Becoming familiar with the room and its features are very important in mitigating first-day anxiety. It is particularly important that you take a few moments to examine the technology in the room. There is nothing that will derail you faster or spark more anxiety on the first day than IT problems. Make sure you know if you need particular connectors or dongles to connect to speakers and projectors and how to turn on and off the technology.

A Couple of DOs:

Get a good night’s sleep. We all know the importance of sleep, even if we don’t always get enough. The night before class, you should ensure that you do what you can to get a good night’s sleep. Being tired is a surefire way to amplify the nerves that you feel on the first day.

Figure out what you are going to wear. Pick something that is comfortable and makes you feel confident. Comfortable clothing can be huge in ensuring that you feel good in front of a class. Do not wear something that is too tight or that will cause you pain. For some TAs the best option is to wear professional attire. This can be helpful in making you feel confident and competent as the instructor. However, if this is the route you choose, make sure your clothes are comfy. You don’t want to find yourself constantly having to tuck your shirt in while in front of the class or being distracted because the shoes you wore—while totally awesome and on trend—have worn blisters on your feet as you walked across campus before class.

On the First Day:

Now that you are aware of the role you will play in the course and what will be expected of you on the first day: if you are a grader, go to class, sit back and take notes; if you are serving as a recitation instructor, this info is for you.

Arrive at the classroom a little early. This allows you to get a sense for the space, to set up your technology, and to greet students as they come in. As a person who sometimes suffers from anxiety, this is very helpful for me. I spend a few minutes walking around the room and getting a sense for the space. Again, this can/may/should help with your general sense of comfort. When the students come in, you have an opportunity to make small talk, if you want. Passing a few words can take the pressure off beginning to speak at the start of class. It is important to remember that students are often a bit nervous as well. Welcoming the students and chatting can really defuse the tension both you and the students feel. Also, it allows you to establish an ally in the class. Having spoken briefly can give you a “touchstone student” to return to while you’re speaking. Having a friendly face—even if you’ve just met this person—can really help you to calm yourself if you start to feel nervous while teaching.

Do an icebreaker. I often have the students do an icebreaker on the first day. Yes, icebreakers are tired. Yes, the students will likely roll their eyes a bit. But here’s a secret: the icebreakers are really more for the instructor. The icebreaker will help you to get to know your students, it will get the students talking and take some of the focus off of you, and it will give you a chance to be in front of the class without all the pressure of teaching. Again, your comfort is paramount. This is especially true in the first few meetings.

Set the tone. On the first day, you also have the opportunity to set the tone for the rest of the semester. If you want the class to be a discussion-heavy class, include something that will get the class talking. If you’d like it to be a give and take between you and the students, plan to have them ask you questions. The first day is very important in establishing the parameters of the class and setting yourself up as the instructor. Remember: you are the expert and they are there to learn from you. If you are confident, comfortable, enthusiastic, and you set the expectations for the class, the rest of the semester will go much more smoothly.

A Few DON’Ts:

  • Don’t just give out the syllabus and then dismiss the class. This happens often but by doing this you squander good, constructive time and miss the opportunity to set the tone and establish yourself as the instructor.
  • Don’t try to impress students with your “coolness.” You are not cool anymore. Parents have known forever that once you have kids you don’t get to be cool. This is true of having students as well. Further, you aren’t teaching to make friends out of your students. You don’t have to be rude or stern, but it’s important to remember that you are responsible for these students’ learning and that many of them have paid a significant amount of money to attend your class and learn from you.
  • Don’t be afraid to hold a pause. Every new teacher will have this happen. You ask a question and while you wait for a response you get nothing from the class but blank stares. It’s fine. Don’t worry. Just sit back and hold the pause. Students can’t sit in silence for long. If you hold the silence, someone will eventually venture a guess.

After the First Day and Going Forward:

Relax and decompress. When you complete the class, take some time to relax and decompress. Take a walk or do some exercise. Teaching is difficult and takes a lot of emotional and intellectual energy. Respect that and allow yourself some time to chill out.

Don’t dwell on your mistakes. Don’t get twisted in knots over small mistakes you may have made or by little things that didn’t go well. Take these little mistakes for what they are: opportunities to improve. Examine them, learn from them, and then put them from your mind. You will always have the opportunity to correct your mistakes during the next class.

Be compassionate to yourself. Talking in front of people is one of the biggest fears that humans have. It takes time and practice to become comfortable and to find the methods that work well for you. It can be easy to compare yourself to professors or your peers, but this is not constructive. Many professors have a career’s worth of experience that you don’t yet possess. You can’t expect to be at that level immediately. Likewise, your peers may be bringing experience—or even just a certain personality type—to the table. Everyone’s experience is different, and everyone begins with different tools. Think more about how you can make yourself a better teacher compared to the one you were the day before.

Have fun and try new things. Teaching is rewarding and like most good things it can be difficult. But don’t forget to try new things. Varying your approach will keep the content fresh and help you to find teaching methods that work well for you, the students, and the material.

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