Advice for Your First Year as a Teaching Assistant

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014; by Stephanie Shipp

When I was accepted into the Integrated Marketing Communications program in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications, I was offered a research assistantship. I had no idea at the time that I would be teaching, too! While teaching was daunting at first, I soon realized that it can be fun—and that teaching is an opportunity to be creative. Below are some things that I learned that will hopefully help you be successful as a teaching assistant.

Reach out to your students. I was surprised to find that most students wouldn’t contact me with a question unless a) they had an emergency or b) they already felt comfortable contacting me. I learned that sending out one email to introduce myself wasn't enough.
I help students see that I’m approachable by sending out emails on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Sending regular emails or reminding students of office hours makes me seem more approachable and helps students feel more comfortable contacting me later in the semester.

Highlight the syllabus. Many of my students didn’t read the entire syllabus. I learned this when I had a few problems with receiving completed assignments on time later in the semester. To make sure that students know what’s in the syllabus, one of my professors quizzes students on the syllabus content during the first week of class. The quiz doesn’t have to be worth a lot of points. It should focus on key policies and important assignments students need to know about.

Take complaints with a grain of salt. If you receive negative feedback (don't worry—you probably won’t!), listen but don’t beat yourself up. Learn from it and grow as a TA. Figure out if there’s an issue that affects several students or if it’s an issue that affects one student. If it’s one student, address the concern one-on-one. If the problem seems more widespread, talk to your supervisor (or a teaching consultant) about different approaches you can take in your teaching.

Work closely with your supervisor. The professor you're assisting as TA is a great resource. When I began working with my supervisor, I never expected that I would develop such a good working relationship with her. She’s given me advice on my coursework and my career. She’s someone who I trust completely and her encouragement has been invaluable. This all has stemmed from mutual understanding and respect established when I taught under her supervision.

Use your resources. UNL offers many resources for TAs. The Campuswide Workshops for Graduate Teaching Assistants are very useful for first-time TAs and help experienced graduate assistants brush up on their teaching skills. Graduate Studies also has a number of online resources for teachers.
Probably the best resource for new TAs is other TAs. Most “older” TAs can tell you what to expect and answer your questions. Also, depending on your college, undergraduate advisors can be helpful. They can give you insight into broader student issues and help you understand your students better.

Know your stuff. Know the material you’re teaching inside and out. You’ll come off as more knowledgeable if you can answer questions on the spot. And if you don’t know the answer to something, it’s okay to tell your students you’ll look into it and get back to them in the next class.

Be enthusiastic about what you’re teaching. If you’re interested in the material (and teaching it), this will show. Tell students why the problem you’re working is interesting, or how scientists and thinkers use a concept. Connecting the material to real life makes it much more engaging for your students.

These tips and resources should help give you a strong start to the new semester. Being a TA can be very rewarding. Remember to enjoy learning along with your students. They can always teach you something new, or help you see material in a new light. This will make the semester far more enjoyable for everyone.