Very practical advice for a first-time T.A.

For me, teaching has become a real pleasure. I feel inspired by my students and I love the feeling of camaraderie that develops in a well-managed classroom. It wasn’t always that way, though. When I first started teaching, I couldn’t believe how much harder it was than I’d imagined. It was all I could think about, and I’d practically have a panic attack before class.

I think professors and administrators sometimes don’t realize how hard it is to start teaching, and how badly we grad students want to do a good job. Unlike K-12 teachers, we get almost no formal training, and what training we do have tends toward the theoretical or the super-specific. The assumption seems to be that we’ve been going to class for eighteen years; it shouldn’t be so hard to make the transition to teacher.

Oh, but it is. It really is. Some people fall into it without batting an eyelash, but we don’t trust these weirdos. For the rest of us, here are some things I wish I’d known when I started.

1. It will be really hard and you will make mistakes.

That’s just the way it is. Fifty minutes can seem like an eternity when you’re starting out, and you will feel like an idiot when you remember some of the things you said in class. But the learning curve, while steep, is rapid. You’ll get better very quickly. In the meantime, though, you’re totally normal to be freaked out.

2. Students want to see you as an authority. Make sure your behavior allows them to do this.

Your students are inclined to look up to you, and it’s really important that you carry yourself in a way that says: “I am the teacher here. I expect you to value what I say.” Speak slowly and deliberately. Look them in the eye. Start class right on time. You may think of yourself as a goofball or a screw-up, but once you step into the classroom you’re performing; you’re now an authority figure.

3. Students will test your boundaries. Tell them what the rules are right away.

I know, this isn’t exactly Dangerous Minds, but students know you’re a TA, not a professor. They will, therefore, try to turn things in late, not show up for class, perhaps even plagiarize. This is why I recommend setting the rules out right away and outlining the consequences. For example, “For every day your paper is late, you will be docked a half-letter grade.” This helps to avoid the exhausting, protracted negotiations at the end of the semester, when students tell you that they really really wanted to get their paper in on time but they had practice and their friend was sick and they had a final and blah blah blah. Frankly, I think it’s less stressful for everyone to know exactly what the rules are and what consequences they can expect.

4. Embrace the silence.

When there’s silence after you’ve asked a question, it can be painful. Really, really painful. We’re not used to it. But, seriously, give them time. They need to think it over and work up the courage to respond. The silence is probably a lot more jarring to you than it is to them. Bring a water bottle and take a sip, if you need something to do while you wait. They’ll tell you if your question is too confusing.

5. Construct your questions carefully.

This is probably one of the hardest things about teaching a section. It’s really important that the questions you ask are open-ended enough to allow for multiple possible answers, but not so open-ended that students have no idea what you’re looking for. Before you ask a question, think: What do I expect to hear in response? Can someone answer this fruitfully without reading my mind?

6. Ask them to expand on what they’ve said.

One of the best tricks out there. They want to say more — they just need your encouragement.

7. Keep them in conversation with each other.

Your students will almost certainly look right at you when they give their responses. They may want to raise their hands. I discourage this, because, in my mind, section should be about learning carry out your own productive, scholarly conversations. Tell them to look at each other when they speak. Ask them not to raise their hands. It makes a surprising difference; they understand very quickly that it’s their responsibility to keep section running.

8. Go slooooow.

The last time I taught, I asked my students to tell me about bad experiences they’d had in section. I expected to hear lots of “It was boring!” Instead, I was really surprised to hear how many students told me they felt frustrated by being cut off, or by a professor who moved too quickly from one topic to the next. It’s OK to move slowly. It’s not a soccer game.

9. You can try to copy someone else’s teaching, but you’ll probably end up feeling stupid.

I did this a lot when I started teaching. One week I’d be that stern but fair professor I’d had freshman year, the next week I’d be that jovial Robin Williams type I had junior year. I always ended up feeling weird and uncomfortable. You have to find your own teaching style. It’s frustrating, because it takes awhile, but you’ll know when you’ve hit your groove.

10. You may be cool, but your students don’t think so. Don’t even bother.

You may spend all your time going to rock shows and hanging out with artists and glamorous people, but guess what? Your students don’t think you’re cool. More than likely, they think Abercrombie & Fitch and a capella are cool, and they do not want to be disabused of this notion. They think you are old and boring, and that is OK. You are old. You don’t have to try. Embrace it.

11. This is not a dinner party.

You are not responsible for everyone having a nice time. I mean, yes, by all means stay attuned to the energy level in the room, and if things are deadly, mix it up. But if that one guy is hungover and falling asleep in class? Not your problem. You have no right to take it personally, and there is absolutely no benefit to doing so.

12. Get meta.

If you feel like things really aren’t working in section, don’t be afraid to say so. Ask, “What’s up here? What can we do differently?” It’s maybe a little awkward, but, like I said, it’s not a dinner party.

13. Consider group work.

I know: I hated it, you probably hated it, and you know why? Because we always ended up doing all the work! But here’s the thing: you’re not everyone. Some people love group work and learn best that way. Consider it. You might be surprised.

14. Write a lesson plan, then abandon it if necessary.

I’m pretty diligent about writing lesson plans, and here’s how I do it. While I do the course reading, I think up questions about the material and write them in the margins. Then I go through the reading and transcribe the questions that seem important and substantive. I organize them by topic in OmniOutliner. A lot of times, though, I’ll discover that students are really interested in something else, or that I’ve been way too ambitious in the amount of material I’d planned to cover. It’s all good. The important thing is to open up the material for conversation and reflection.

15. You don’t have to understand everything perfectly.

I think people really underestimate how much time grad-student TAs have to spend just absorbing and making sense of the material. For example, when I taught Intro to Film Theory, I’d never taken a film theory class, and a lot of the stuff was new to me. It’s OK, though. You still know more than your students, just by virtue of the grad classes you’ve taken, and you’re better at talking about it. They don’t mind if you have to work something through with them.

16. You will fall in love with your students.

That’s just how it is, and that’s the way it should be. You love them for being there, for talking, for learning, for taking it seriously. Then the semester is over and they’ll forget about you, or maybe not. But it’s a cool and special thing, to learn together.

Some links:

  • I like Yale’s Becoming Teachers handbook (warning: PDF); it spoke pretty directly to my own neuroses.
  • A graduate teaching fellow at Yale referred me to Bloom’s Taxonomy, a framework for helping students understand things. I find it helpful in constructing questions, if a little impractical to implement in fifty minutes.

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