10 TA Teaching Tips for Grad Students

“Those who can do, do. Those who can’t do, teach” is quite the load of equine excrement. As any educator attests, making sure students soak up and retain information proves quite challenging. For graduate students assigned to teaching assistant positions, it might wind up downright terrifying if they don’t plan on ever entering into the education sector after completing school. But you guys do not have to forge ahead on your own. Try some of these tips before stepping into the classroom and hopefully quell some of that mounting anxiety.

  1. Set common goals and clearly communicate them:

    Make sure students know what you expect of them the first day of class and explicitly draw up course goals to keep in mind as everything clips forward. While they might still have questions, giving them clear, concise instructions on the front end prevents stressing out on the back. If they will have to write 20 pages on Kinesiology by the end of the semester, there is no reason they should forget it's coming. Remain communicative throughout the semester and makes everyone’s lives that much easier in the long run.

  2. Have a strong syllabus:

    Communicating effectively extends well beyond setting realistic goals and expectations. Another way to keep students from bogging themselves down in confusion is keeping with an explicit syllabus. Yes, Virginia, deviations are inevitable and staying rigid won’t help your class any. But combining flexibility with strength makes it easier to ensure students learn things on schedule without succumbing to excessive stress and pressure.

  3. But don’t overdo it:

    Overpreparing for a class and overthinking that syllabus poses the same risk of ineffectual teaching as its under- equivalent. For novice teachers especially, discovering the proper balance might mean a few mistakes, and that’s OK! But don’t feel the need to present every minute detail of every covered topic. Pick out the most important points to make and stick with those. Otherwise class would never end, and not even an advanced mathematics enthusiast wants that.

  4. Reach out. Ask questions:

    Don’t let pride preclude productivity. If you start struggling with your Law and Policy research, ask your professor or even other TAs for advice. Most people aren’t horrible and will be more than happy to offer up tips helping you through any confusing patches. The best TAs – and teachers for that matter – understand that they should admit weakness and that no shame exists in seeking assistance. After all, you can’t grow as a grad student without opening yourself to learning whatever you can. That’s kinda sorta the whole point of graduate school.

  5. Engage with teachers:

    Beyond asking questions, exert a concerted effort to try and talk to the full-time professors in your department. You don’t have to be their best friend, and most of them probably wouldn’t much want that anyways, but you can certainly learn more about your chosen discipline that way. Plus, comfort and familiarity mean an easier time approaching them with questions about drawing up a viable syllabus and keeping those undergraduate rapscallions in line.

  6. Engage with other TAs:

    Same logic as above, really, except you gain perspective from your own generation rather than more experienced, seasoned professionals. Maintaining an effective, supportive coterie of both demographics provides a well-rounded pool from which to learn, maybe even teach. That should provide richness and texture to the graduate school experience. Also you might be able to finagle another TA into covering for you in case of an emergency or a hangover.

  7. Mistakes are okay:

    It isn’t that we don’t have faith in you. We do! But we’re also going to assume that, if you’re reading this, you’re probably human. If you are, that means you will not execute a flawless triple axel of a course. All you can do is learn from the boo-boos you sustain while teaching and apply them to later experiences. Maybe even offer up some help to younger TAs and keep them from facing the same issues in their respective arrangements.

  8. Don’t force opinions:

    The best educations expose students to facts and the wide variety of perspectives surrounding them, allowing them to make their own autonomous decisions about what to think and what to feel. Listen to Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben and understand that with great power comes great responsibility. You were given a pulpit; use it wisely and remain objective in your lessons.

  9. Bring extras:

    Even the most astute undergrads sometimes experience cognitive slippage and forget to bring the necessary Scantrons, pens, pencils, and other incidentals. You probably experienced the exact same panic at some point in your studies. Show them some love and keep a few extras on hand for days when they just can’t think straight and stay organized.

  10. Don’t hook up with your students:

    Yes, everyone’s sex and romantic life is their own business so long as nobody breaks the law. But professors and institutes of higher learning dissuade graduate students serving as TAs from getting too chummy with their students for one pretty obvious reason: conflict of interest. It increases the risk of favoritism. Swallow those hormones until after the class ends, OK?