New to being a TA: Where to start?

by Sam Malby

You’ve just got the news. You’ve been given funding by the History department at CMU, and you’re going to be a Graduate Teaching Assistant. For fifteen seconds you’re ecstatic. Then you come to the realization… you’re going to be a Teaching Assistant. And you have no idea how to teach, how to talk to students, or how to grade. You suddenly realize that you know nothing about anything, and that they will immediately realize that you must be an impostor and will hunt you down with torches, pitchforks, and (this being America) probably some guns. 

But fear not! There is no need to panic, simply take a deep breath and try to calm down.

Let me suggest a few places you can start.

First of all, there are some things to remember before you even enter the classroom.

1.     Don’t try to be someone you’re not. If you’re a cheerful, joke-laden person who always has a smile on his or her face, don’t put on a stern, scary face because you think it’ll give you more authority in the classroom. It won’t. (Don’t be the Grinch, unless you’re naturally a mean, green, grumpy machine). Be natural and do your best to make others feel comfortable around you.

2.     Remember that the aim of a discussion section is getting the students to talk. You are there to guide the discussion; you certainly shouldn’t be talking for 50 minutes straight. You will most likely end up putting yourself and your students to sleep.

3.     It’s perfectly fine to say, “I don’t know.” Just follow it up with “I’ll look that up for our next class” or “can someone check that on their phone or laptop?”

4.     At first, it is better to be overprepared than underprepared. Eventually, you’ll know how much preparation an hour of discussion section requires.

 

Now a few tips on how to improve your teaching skills.

1.     You might think that the go-to person is the professor you are teaching for, but while the professor is high up on the list, the first people most of us turn to are other TAs. These could be those you are working with as well as other TAs in the History Department. A quick discussion with one of them will often help you find a solution to your problem, an idea for your next class, and suggestions on finding resources.

2.     You can of course also discuss your dreams, doubts, and questions with the professor you work for, and usually they are also a great resource for dealing with any difficulties you may have.

3.     If by chance you are an International student arriving during the summer, there is an International Teaching Assistant Workshop. This is a nice place to start and will help you become aware of some of the cultural differences between your country and the United States.

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4.     During the fall semester, the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) provide bi-weekly GTA workshops where they discuss topics such as ‘Starting on the Right Foot,’ ‘Dealing with Issues in the Classroom,’ and ‘Tackling the Demands of Professional and Personal Responsibilities’. Many of these sessions have been a great resource this semester and provide feedback and discussion points throughout the year that will help you reassess your own teaching.

5.     The HST 700 Practicum in College Teaching is a great place to discuss classroom issues and might make you re-consider many of the pre-conceived ideas you may have about teaching.

6.     The professor for the Teaching Practicum in the Fall 2018 semester, Dr. Brittany Fremion, introduced us to a number of books on teaching. For example, Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do can be a great place to start if you’re in need for some ideas.

7.     If you need a quick refresher on a topic or need some information on something you haven’t studied yet, a great place to start is the Crash Course YouTube channel. Their videos on World History and US History are full of information, presented in a fun and easy to understand way.

 

Ultimately, experience is the best teacher. All you need to do is walk into the classroom, stand in front of the class and begin to talk. Not everything will always go to plan, but that is absolutely fine. Over time you will learn to adapt, improvise, and survive. Just remember what Winnie the Pooh says: “You’re braver than you believe and stronger and smarter than you think.”