Advice for New Graduate Teaching Assistants

I have been a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) now for four years. My fifth and final year is starting this August, and by the end I will have taught a total of seven different university classes.

Over this time I have learnt a thing or two, and have had such far-ranging experiences as a death threat from a student (which is a felony offense, for the record) to having a student run away from home at the end of a semester (bizarre, but everything turned out ok).

Here are a few pieces of advice for new GTAs. Of course, I cannot comment specifically on particular courses and areas of study, but in general:

Know Your Subject Area

Easier said than done, I know. If you have never taught a class before, you will quickly realize that there is a HUGE difference between sitting in a desk taking notes and generating material while standing in front of a class. While you do not have to be the world’s foremost expert on a given topic, you simply must prepare more material than you plan to teach that day.

In other words, don’t wing it, especially not the first time teaching a particular course. I can now easily tell whether or not a professor has prepared a lecture or is flying by the seat of his/her pants, which happens more often than you might think. Don’t get me wrong: there is always an element of improvisation in teaching, but you do not want the bulk of your lecture to be improvised.

Expect to be Challenged

Your students are going to ask you questions to which you do not know the answer. Trust me, it WILL happen. What do you do? The worst thing you can do is try to make up an answer on the spot. Sure, it’s fine to speculate, but don’t be ashamed to admit that you don’t know. I always say something like, “That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer, but I’ll try to find it.” Or even better, say something like, “I don’t know the answer. Perhaps YOU can try to find it and report back to us.”

Keep Personal Time Your Own

Dealing with students can be both highly rewarding and extremely frustrating. More importantly, it can consume most of your time if you allow it. In my first couple of years as a GTA, I found myself checking (and responding!) to student e-mails at all hours, even if I was up working on a project at 1 AM. Don’t do that.

Instead, allocate specific times for dealing with GTA issues. Office hours are prime times, but you will probably need to set aside some additional time, such as the hour after lunch, or from 4-5 PM, or whatever works for you. Personally, I address all the issues I can before 5 PM, and I rarely check student e-mail over weekends. Chances are high that you will need that time to work on your own projects and maintain sanity in your personal life. Remember that you still have classes and homework of your own to maintain!

Dedicate a Separate E-mail Account for School/GTA Stuff

Speaking of e-mail, here is another absolutely necessary tool: a separate e-mail account just for school-related correspondence. Trust me on this one, you do not want to leisurely check your personal e-mail account on a Saturday afternoon only to have a dozen student e-mails hit you in the face.

Yes, you can use whatever e-mail account your university gives you, but that account will likely suck. For years KU gave us a miserly 20 MB of space for e-mail, and after a month or two of file attachments, that space will run out fast. Plus, accessing your university e-mail will likely require navigating a torturous interface, such as that of Outlook Web Access, the interface that defines “needless complication.”

Here is how my school-related e-mail setup works: I have a dedicated Gmail account for school/GTA materials, but KU also gave me an e-mail account a few years ago, and many people still send e-mail to that account. Fortunately, Gmail has a nifty feature that allows me to check e-mail from other accounts. In essence, Gmail automatically logs in to my KU account every hour, grabs any waiting e-mail, then deletes it from KU’s server. Since it is now in Gmail, I can easily label or search for specific e-mails later. Outlook Web Access does not even have a search feature!

I like using Gmail because they offer close to three gigabytes of e-mail storage space. Plus, the ability to label and search is crucial. I keep ALL of my correspondence with students in case there is a grade dispute and I need to show a “paper” trail (which can happen, trust me).

Learn How Grading Works on Your Own

Unfortunately, you cannot expect anyone to teach you anything about how grading calculations work. When I first became a GTA, I was hoping to attend some kind of seminar and learn how to setup a gradebook and handle certain elements such as weighted and excused grades. I found no such seminar, and no one else was willing to talk about it either.

You will probably find that most people enter grades into a spreadsheet. Some of them may even figure out the needed formulae for calculating totals and percentages. A few others may have paid for some commercial software to assist in grading calculations, and others may doggedly cling to writing and figuring all grades by hand in a bona fide grade “book.”

Ever pragmatic, I sought a different path. I wanted FREE software that would figure out all the necessary calculations and percentages that I could also access online (from school or from home). More importantly, I wanted the students to also have secure access to their individual grades online. Is such software available?

Yes. I first tried PHP Grade Book, and ran it for two semesters. It works well, but the software requires that you run it from your own web space using a MySQL database. If you have no idea what that means, then forget about it. I still like the software, but the project seems to have gone silent, as there has been no development updates since 2004. PHP Grade Book also lacks the ability to calculate “weighted” grades, so I looked for something better.

I am currently using Engrade for all of my grading needs. It’s free, it’s web-based, and anyone can sign up for it (without having your own MySQL databases!). Engrade also handles weighted grades with aplomb, and also offers the ability to track attendance. You may also export your gradebook at any time to a spreadsheet.

Best of all, your students can easily create accounts and view their grades at any time. Believe me, this saves hours of responding to student grade inquiries. Since setting up an online gradebook, I don’t spend even one minute responding to students about grades each semester (unless I make a typo, which can happen). :-)

Consider a Course Management System

Depending on the nature of your course, you may find that a Course Management System (CMS) is quite helpful. For instance, my students can all log into a CMS to view the weekly schedule, take online quizzes, download any files needed for projects, participate in forums, and chat with me directly (if I’m online).

My university offers such a CMS called Blackboard, but it sucks. To be fair, some people must like Blackboard, but most willingly tolerate it because they’ve never dealt with anything else. Personally, I’m appalled that some universities spend many thousands of dollars of tuition money each year to license a product like Blackboard when comparable products are available for free.

One such product is Moodle, a free, open-source CMS. A number of universities have opted for Moodle over commercial packages like Blackboard, and I hope to see that trend continue. My university, unfortunately, is not one of them.

Regardless, any CMS is better than none at all, and if you have one available you should use it. I tried Blackboard for a while, but I’ve also set up Moodle on my own web space. If you have some web space and are technologically competent, running Moodle is rewarding. The first year I used it, many of my students commented on how they preferred it to Blackboard. KU can use what it wants, but my wife and I both use Moodle now for our courses.

Be Professional, Consistent, and (most importanly) Genuine

So, you’re a new GTA, huh? Congratulations! You now have the responsibility of giving your students the best education you can offer. Always remember that. Standing in front of a class gives one (hopefully deserved) authority, and the way to keep that authority is to act in a professional manner. Often new GTAs are just a few years older than their students, and there is a temptation for new GTAs to try to become “buddy buddy” with their students. Don’t get me wrong: it is possible to become friends with some of your students, but while they are enrolled in your class, maintain a “professional” distance, as having “friends” in your class WILL lead to awkward grading situations, which brings me to my next point.

Be consistent in your grading and treatment of students. Once you get to know students, it is easy to associate them with a particular letter grade, as in “Jane Smith is an ‘A’ student.” To try to avoid this labeling, I do as much “blind” grading as I can, such as grading tests one page at a time instead of all-at-once. In this manner, I only see whose paper I am grading while I am on the first page.

Finally, be genuine. I do not want it to sound like dealing with students is a hassle, because most of the time it is not. If a student comes to me for help and truly wants to learn, I will stop at nothing to help that student. If you are enthusiastic about your subject and genuinely want your students to learn, they will pick up on that enthusiasm. On the contrary, if you view students as a nuisance and only care about your own work, they will quickly realize that, too.

Allow yourself to make mistakes. If you are standing in front of a class, I guarantee that you WILL occasionally say and do stupid things. Feel free to laugh at yourself. I tend to think of my GTA years as time for pedagogical experimentation: finding out what tactics and approaches work and do not work for me. Go ahead and accept that the first time you teach a given topic, it will be the worst for both you and your students. If you think you did a good job teaching material for the first time, just wait until you teach it again, and then wait until you teach it a third time. Words like “abominable” and “ignominious” come to mind when I reflect on my very first year of teaching. One of my former professors once remarked to me that he wished he had the permanent addresses of all of his students for the first five years of his teaching. When I looked at him inquisitively, he continued, “… so that I can send them all letters of apology!” :-)

Good luck!

Originally posted on 09 June 2007

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