Starting Out


Starting Out

Even experienced graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) can get nervous on the first day of class. Although your success will be measured over the course of an entire semester, the first few weeks are important for setting clear expectations, organizing the class, and setting a positive tone. Students will give you a surprising amount of respect simply because you are an instructor. If you are prepared for class, knowledgeable about the material and responsive to your students, you will build upon this respect and establish a productive learning environment.

Meet with the professor and other GTAs before the semester. This should happen well before the first day of class, so you have the opportunity to clarify expectations and define your role in the course. Find out what the time commitment is and what your responsibilities will be. Take a look at the syllabus and reading list, and arrange to get copies of any texts or course packets being used. If there are other GTAs, agree on how you will divide the work for the course. Clarify the rules for grading, attendance, late assignments, etc., since different professors often have different policies.

Check out the classroom space. Know where your class is located. If you are running a discussion section or laboratory, think about how you plan to use the space. Look at the lighting controls, arrangement of seats, and size of the room. If you plan to use audio/visual equipment, make sure it works, especially if you will be using computers, video projectors and other pieces of technology.

First impressions count. Although you will interact with your students throughout the semester, the first impressions that you make are important. Smile and relax. Consider how you dress, since your appearance makes an impression on students. Dress comfortably and be yourself, but remember that you are still in a position of responsibility and leadership. Many teachers agree that it is easier to relax the rules and be more flexible if you set high standards at the beginning. You don't want to overdo it, though, since you risk turning off students if you are too aggressively strict or bossy.

Get to know your students by name. Using a student's name lets them know that they are recognized as a person. If you have a hard time memorizing names, try taking a photo and have the students write their names on it. Consider whether students know each other, as well. If the class is small, you could ask them to introduce themselves briefly. Notecards with some brief contact information or group photos to place faces with names can be helpful, too.

Learning Names in a Large Classroom

One experienced TA learns names in a large classroom in the following way. The first day of class, he asks the students to put their names on a sign-up sheet in the exact order they are sitting. Then he asks them to sit in the same seat for the next two weeks, while he memorizes the names on the sheet. At the end of the two weeks, he is able to call on students by name, no matter where they sit.

Visible Expectations

Blackboard is a great way to make your expectations visible. By putting your syllabus in the "Course Documents" area, students can easily access assignments and due dates whenever necessary. There are several resources to help you put your course documents online. To find out more, contact CNDLS staff or your Department Technology Representative (DTR). To find out who your DTR is, visit this UIS page.

I wish I had known that...

  • last-minute preparation for discussion section on my way over to class only increased my nervousness. students value most the fact that you care about them. Expertise is secondary.
  • grading 30 papers in a weekend is hell. Spread them out. Do 4 or 5 each day!
  • it?s easy to underestimate the time involved in grading, especially as a rookie-grader. For the first assignment that [my instructor and I] graded, both of us independently graded the same 5 papers, and then compared our grading severity and final scores. This served as a yardstick for the adjustment in scores for the whole group.
  • a TA-ship should not be seen as only a paying job, but also as an opportunity to learn from an expert. with the responsibilities of being a TA come certain privileges--e.g., use of departmental equipment and space. Don't wait to find out about these things. Ask somebody in your department who has TAed before.
  • I should have thought about location and group size more when leading my first discussion sections. These things have a considerable impact on how things unfold, regardless of how well you know the material. --Experienced GTAs

On to Leading Discussions & Labs >>