The relationship that a professor and a Teaching assistant share is similar to that of Batman and Robin, helping each other tackling challenging situations. A teaching assistant(TA) usually assists a teacher with grading and daily tasks associated with teaching a course. Teaching assistants can be or various types, such as Graduate Teaching Assistant(GTA), Undergraduate Teaching Assistant(UTA) and Teaching Assistants for students with learning disabilities. A teaching assistant plays many roles besides grading the students, they guide students, solve their issues related to the course and even motivate them to go on in many cases.
I have taken the role of a graduate teaching assistant and a lab instructor multiple times in the past few years of my graduate education and I have plethora of experiences to share. Being a TA is not at all an easy job, especially with the pressure of being fair to every student and doing justice to your responsibilities. One of the issues a TA faces is “How to react?” It is almost like walking on a tight rope, because you need to put your point forward in an effective manner without offending the students, and in the past I have had students behaving inappropriately. Tackling such students, I had to be polite and politically correct at all times while maintaining my stance for the issues.
There was another case where one of the students came to my office hours and tried to get the answer itself. I tried to guide him step by step, making sure that I do not give out the answer, which led frustration to build up from the student’s side. He was not wanting to learn, instead just wanted the answer, and this eventually led him to bang his laptop and leave. I feel its very important to stand by your decision because you need to be fair to other students. Adding to that, I would like to say that to maintain fairness, if you fix something for one student, you must fix it for the rest of the class.
Being a lab instructor is more difficult than being a TA because you need to perform the experiments and make sure all equipment is working right before the class, so that students do not face any issues during the class. One must also be aware of possible errors students can make, which often comes with experience, so that learning is uninterrupted. In my case, when I was an instructor for an electrical lab, initially I was overwhelmed with the responsibilities and was not ready with instant answers for the students. Gradually, when I learned with the students, I was able to help them out better and that is what reflected in my evaluations at the end of the class. I was really happy that I was able to make progress and students appreciated it.
Sometimes, TAs also need to substitute for their professor’s class and it is not easy because TAs have big shoes to fill. TAs need to prepare for the class with presentations, lecture notes and exercise prompts to make sure the lecture goes smoothly. Once the preparation is done, the TAs need to overcome the fear of lecturing the students followed by preparing for questions students might raise and how to tackle a question that one doesn’t know the answer to. Overall, my experience with taking up substitute classes has been positive but I have had my share of roadblocks while lecturing students.
Lastly, I would like to talk about being a TA during the pandemic. In-person interaction made it easier for the TAs to handle office-hours and students’ concerns but the pandemic has affected the way student-TA interactions occur. Even though I have been a TA for a few MIT courses (mostly online courses) even before the pandemic, I feel that the number of emails you need to answer and conducting the office hours online is not as good as synchronous interaction with the students. I would like to encourage all TAs to maintain their calm and avoid burnout over excessive emails and Zoom fatigue especially with a large class.