TA Advice – applicable to many other scenarios in life
Here are some thought and bits of advice towards being a TA in university. This may seem to be pretty random to put as a JET blog post, but I believe it has insight that can be applicable to many other scenarios such as teaching in a younger classroom setting or even in another workplace environment which fosters growth and mentorship (which I hope is most workplaces). I hope to use some of the values I learned through helping first year university students and apply them to younger students and fellow teachers!
1. Set Class Rules
– Let them write the rules, but add some as necessary
– Encourage respect and mindfulness of actions and speech
– Acknowledge Cultural Differences and Language Barriers. Let them know what’s tolerated and what’s not in the classroom and to be mindful to be respectful of each other.
– Try to remove distractions such as cell phones/ laptops/ studying but let them know at any time if they absolutely need to make a call, they can step outside the classroom
– If they need to use the washroom, they don’t need to ask you. They’re adults now.
– Encourage the students to let you know if they’re going to be away so that you can plan ahead or somehow still involve them in the discussion
2. Experiment with your lesson – have fun with it
– Do an icebreaker for your first tutorial and maybe do a quick refresher icebreaker during your second in case some of the students have switched tutorials or they’ve switched seats.
– Try your best to learn their names. It makes a huge difference if you know their name. It’s nice when your teacher knows your name J
– Be Creative! Try different group activities, small group discussion, paired discussion, class debates, written responses, small games, videos, thought experiments. Not all students learn the same way or are motivated to participate in class discussion. Don’t punish them if they’re quiet, learn how to get them involved in a different way… be it small group discussion and you rotate groups and sit in with the group, or written responses. I received the most insightful written responses from my quietest students!
– If the class is enjoying the discussion, sometimes it’s better to continue with it than move on if they’re particularly engaged.
– Read the classroom atmosphere. Ask them how they are feeling and how their day was. Are they quiet, are they motivated and excited, are they excited? Is it because of a test or are they sleepy from an all-nighter? Sometimes you need to be flexible with your activity and empathize with them. You’re a student too, put yourself in their shoes. Sometimes group discussion works, sometimes a quick get up and stretch works.
-Over-prepare, especially for your first tutorial. It’s better to have too many activities planned than not enough. You can keep it in your pocket for next tutorial when you find yourself with too much time
-Re – cap the theme/discussion for last week, especially if it was emotional or brought a lot of discussion. I liked giving the students a prompt or question for them to respond/think about for the following week. They’d write it down on paper, hand it in and we’d have a short discussion on it. It also helped me get to know my students better if I couldn’t talk with them one-on-one during the tutorial.
– One of my favourite tutorials was when I made up different “real life” scenarios and had the groups of students put themselves in another “made-up” student’s shoes. They told me, these scenarios were awful, and I had really made some horrible experiences for the students. I told them that these were experiences I had taken from my friends and from myself, and they were definitely possible. I made examples of students that had to work a part-time job, maybe had to commute a really far distance to get to school, one of them maybe failed their first test, or were international students and something difficult happened back home. I tried to make them as relatable as possible. I accidentally made one of my students cry (I’m not super proud of this) because her grandma had actually passed away recently, and it was a very emotional experience. My good friend had also passed away in my second year and I empathized with her.
3. Be Honest but Mindful
– Everyone’s experience is different. Tell them your experience but emphasize that it’s never the same for every single person. Some days you’ll feel like you can do anything, and some days you just want to give up, but it’s important to encourage self-care and to recognize when you’re not feeling well. It’s important to encourage them to stay motivated and to help each other out. For the second last tutorial I brought in a panel of my friends that were all interested in different things and all wanted to pursue different careers. It gave a lot of perspective for the students and they enjoyed meeting other upper year students.
-It’s natural to make mistakes and be nervous, especially with your first few tutorials as you get into the groove of it. Gracefully acknowledge when you make a mistake and learn from it! They look up to you as their senior and they appreciate the honesty.
– If you don’t know the answer to a question that they ask you, be honest and tell them you don’t know but you’ll look for the answer after tutorial and follow up with them. Make sure you actually follow up with them. Write down their name and the question immediately!
– Show them your successes and your failures. I almost failed my Calc II course… and I showed them my tests (you don’t have to do this if you’re not comfortable with it) but I explained to them what I learned from that and how I applied it to improve myself over the years. I emphasized that you cannot define yourself through only your failures, and that you have to look at all your successes too. Try to tie together themes/ideas from the past tutorials and appl them to experiences that the students might currently be facing.
-Say hi to them outside the classroom if you see them! It makes them feel like someone out there is looking out for them, and even a small smile can brighten up their day. I encouraged them to talk to each other outside of the classroom and if they noticed someone was alone or not feeling to well, to reach out to them.
– Share resources that you find. Encourage club activities, mental wellness, outside of school activities. Share the activities that you’ve been involved in but try to promote other activities that might spark their interest as well. Encourage them to find something they’re passionate about such as music, dance or sports, even if it doesn’t seem to fall within the traditional scope of engineering.
4. Try Your Best
At the end of the day, you are a student too. Some days are going to be great for you, and other days are really not going to be great. You might forget your student’s name when they put you on the spot and they ask you if you remember their name. If you’re not feeling so well (flu, really bad fever, etc.) or you have a really important exam right after your tutorial, practice self-care. Switch classes with another TA and tell the course coordinators what’s going on. If you’re stuck and don’t have any ideas for the next tutorial, ask the other TAs. Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you’re unsure during group meetings, that’s what they’re there for. Ask for help often and offer help as well. Be passionate, have fun with every tutorial and honestly, just try your best! Good luck and have fun!