When you train TAs in teaching, you’ve got a unique responsibility. You need to help them grow as teachers at the same time as they’re consumed with coursework and research. How do you--and your department or school--help them develop their teaching as much as their knowledge and research skills?
Here at Stanford, I lead our Mentors in Teaching (MinT) program, in which we train grad students who are already experienced TAs to be teaching “mentors” to other grad students.
This program, supported by Stanford’s Center for Teaching and Learning, complements existing departmental TA training programs.
Over lunch with our grad mentors recently, we discussed some challenges they face as they coach TAs in their departments as well as some of the best strategies they have found for resolving these issues. The answers will help you whether you’re a grad student, administrator, or faculty member charged with training TAs in your department.
We encourage all our TAs to get student feedback on their teaching midway through our quarter teaching term. Our mentors generally talk through the evaluation results with them to help put feedback into context and think about possible ways to address any issues in the classroom. The first challenge arises in this evaluation period.
Get input from the TA before the evaluation to see if there are specific items on which they would like feedback.
Set goals at the beginning of the quarter so you can revisit them in the mid-quarter discussion. These goals might also help structure more specific questions to ask on a mid-quarter evaluation.
Schedule a videotaping or observation around the same time as the mid-quarter eval, so when you meet together, there are multiple sources of feedback to discuss.
When you administer the evaluation, make sure that you take time to put the evals in context for the students so they realize this is something that the TA wants. Help them realize that specific feedback given at mid-quarter is more likely to help them as students. You might lead with, "The TA is trying to figure out what they can do better for you this quarter.”
If you’re running a Small Group Evaluation, you may be able to address this problem during the eval itself. Try asking the students a couple probing questions so there are more specifics, such as:
“Please provide me with some examples of what has gone well.”
“Can you provide suggestions of extra resources or other educational activities or components that might be helpful?”
“How could the TA take this section to the next level?”
Have a Meet and Greet opportunity or some way for mentors and TAs to get a chance to know each other before help is needed.
Approach the TAs in person rather than through email (sometimes email is easy to ignore).
If there is a course TA meeting, see if you can attend to introduce yourself.
Assign a specific mentor to each TA and try to maintain that pairing for multiple quarters.
Provide definite opportunities and events for TAs and mentors to interact; for example, at an orientation/lunch/etc. TAs are generally hesitant to randomly reach out to their mentor without something to instigate that conversation.
Make mentors more available--have an open office hour with cookies so TAs can stop by and chat.
Be proactive and send out personalized ‘check-in’ emails to follow-up on conversations or events.
Sometimes it's enough to lend a sympathetic ear, but what more can you do to provide resources and support?
Help archive or set up access for TAs to past course resources.
This could be a Box.com site, wiki or CourseWork site, etc, to save past problem sets, exams, review material, and other items that might be useful starting points for future TA's at Stanford.
At Stanford, you can get a TA Training Grant to help fund start-up costs for this!
At the end of the quarter, have each TA write a letter to next TA passing along useful advice and course expectations.
Host a workshop on how to write a problem for an exam or problem set in a time-effective way. Ask your Center for Teaching and Learning to help.
Advise TAs to speak with the instructor and past TAs before they agree to a TA position: sometimes there is just a mismatch in expectations.
Ask course instructors to fill out a checklist of typical course duties so TA's have clear expectations going in.
Sometimes a TA position is simply requiring more hours than the position allows. For example, a 50% TAship should require 20 hrs/week on average. If the TA's being asked to do too much, you might consider speaking with the Student Services Officer, Graduate Studies Chair or someone else in the department who might be able to help allocate more resources to a course and create a more realistic set of positions.