How to Be a Great Graduate Teaching Assistant

be a great teaching assistant

Be the best teaching assistant you can be

Teaching assistantships offer graduate students two things they desperately need: income and experience. Competition for them has increased in recent years, so anyone wishing to earn and retain these coveted positions needs to fill them well.

First, be dependable.

Nothing will worsen a supervising professor’s opinion of a graduate teaching assistant more quickly than not showing up, not finishing work on time, or – perhaps worst of all – getting others to do his or her work. Don’t be someone who fails to adhere to this basic rule of thumb. It is the foundation of professional behavior.

Second, ask questions.

Schedule a meeting with your supervising professor at the beginning of each term to ask about your basic duties. Be sure you know ahead of time when you should be in class, what you will be doing in and out of the classroom, etc. Some professors will initiate this meeting, but it is a good idea to have one even if that is not the case. Not only will it help you to plan your time and have a general idea of what you will be doing; it will demonstrate that you have initiative.

As the term continues, don’t be afraid to ask whatever questions you may have about each task you are given. It is far better to clarify something – even if you feel you should know what to do – than to face your supervising professor with a stack of incorrectly graded papers or a course website with several egregious errors several days later. To put it another way, your supervising professor will value competency far more than expertise. You will not be thought ignorant for asking questions about course content, grading procedures, or any such thing. Questions are expected. Ask them.

Third, make it a learning experience.

You will probably do well if you ask the necessary questions, but you will truly excel if you ask more than that. Teaching as a graduate student is one of the best learning opportunities around. And, the more you seek to learn, the more useful you will be as a teaching assistant. If you set a good example for the undergraduates by raising your hand and asking questions during a class, the professor will be able to use your input to spark conversation. If you take the initiative to meet with the professor about an unfamiliar topic within the curriculum, you will feel more comfortable addressing questions that may come to you directly from the students. If you learn enough and demonstrate and enthusiasm for teaching, you may find yourself assigned to solo teaching duties in future terms.

Also, don’t let your learning stop with course content. Remember that you are not just an assistant; you are also an apprentice. You can learn a great deal about the art of teaching simply by observing your supervising professors. Notice what works well, and consider incorporating it into your own teaching in the future. Many of the best professors continue to borrow ideas from one another throughout their careers.  

Fourth, relish your role.

On our first day of orientation, the department chair of my graduate program told all of the new teaching assistants that we would now be occupying a special place in academic culture – one we would never occupy again later. We would be a combination of friend, mentor and guide to our students, and often times, we would be seen as more approachable than a professor yet more knowledgeable than a fellow student. She also advised us to relish this particular role, because it’s literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. She was absolutely right, and so I pass along her words of wisdom. Embrace your status as a go-between, and you will enjoy as well as benefit from the experience.

About the Author: Ann van der Merwe is a singer and music historian based in southwest Ohio. She holds a B.M. in music performance and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in music history.

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