Memoirs of a Graduate Teaching Assistant

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.

2 Replies to “Memoirs of a Graduate Teaching Assistant”

  1. Great write-up Sahil!

    You have made many points during this that I feel will resonate highly with many of us in this class. I, too, have found it difficult in the past to know how to react to students, particularly those that are unwilling to put in the extra work to learn the material and comprehend the assignment. As you have put, maintaining your principles can indeed be difficult when trapped between the students and mentors, but good on you for standing your ground.

    In your opinion, do you think that you have improved the position for others after you? Or put differently, do you believe you have made a lasting impact that will empower and help future GTAs in your department?

    Lastly – I enjoy the irony in your opening gif meme – absolutely fantastic!

  2. I really enjoyed reading your post, Sahil! Your post is definitely relatable and you make valid points, too. I agree with your position on handling conflict, especially when you said “I had to be polite and politically correct at all times while maintaining my stance for the issues.” Too expand on this point, each semester I make it a personal intention of mine to uphold mutual respect between my students and I. What does this look like? Well, I prioritize effective communication and empathy. For example, one strategy I use is making it clear on my syllabi when I am available (i.e., how long it takes for me to respond to emails). And what my expectations are for the course (i.e., I expect students to complete each assignment on time, I do not accept late work). With this being said, I also clearly communicate in the syllabi that I drop their lowest grades on certain assignments and I offer 1-2 extra credit assignments each semester. I believe a part of our ethical responsibility is to execute fairness, which means making accommodations (when appropriate) for students who are falling behind. I challenge your definition of fairness here because I relate this to the equity over equality debate. According to your definition, it wouldn’t be fair to allow extended time on an assignment for one student over another. However, a more equitable approach would be for us to consider the context and circumstances for each student, especially during a pandemic. Because we find ourselves in tumultuous times, I have extended more grace to my students this semester *when* they have communicated to me their issue with completing an assignment. I don’t ask students for a lot of details, but I go back to my idea of mutual respect in honoring the dedication it took for the student to reach out, and also the bravery, to ask for an extension. It wasn’t until I got to grad school that I realized this was something people ask their professors for. I have peers, fellow graduate students, who have asked our professors for an extension during a very stressful period of their life. The theme I keep seeing is that students, regardless of their level of education, care about passing their classes. It is not up to me to decide if their reasons are valid or not, but I do have the power in these situations to extend grace.

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