Teaching Assistants: Teachers in Training

Serving as a graduate Teaching Assistant or “TA” provides graduate students with opportunities to experience and learn what it is like to teach. The role of the TA often depends on her/his subject matter expertise for the course. Whether serving as a professor’s assistant or primary teaching support, teaching class part-time, or as the primary teacher for a course, a graduate student TA experiences firsthand the joys and challenges of teaching. Serving as a TA is often the first real teaching experience for those aspiring to become a faculty member. Although TA’s usually have experience performing research, writing, and working with colleagues both faculty and graduate students alike, they often lack real teaching experience. Serving as a TA helps them understand the important difference of being in front of the classroom and sitting within it.

TA’s are compensated. TA’s receive a significant stipend plus payment of their tuition and fees. In return, TA’s work 20 hours per week. TA’s usually have some background in the course or courses for which they serve as a TA. TA’s often have taken the course or related courses for which they serve as a TA. In return, TA’s often have office or lab hours in which they work with students. TA’s help grade exams and papers subject to the professor’s judgment. Also, TA’s may lead exam review sessions. Most importantly, professors often assign TA’s to work one-on-one with students having difficulty with the course.

All of the TA’s roles and responsibilities not only assist the professor, help students learn the course’s content, and build a sense of classroom community but also provide the TA with valuable training. How well a TA benefits from this training is directly related to how well s/he teaches when s/he becomes a professor. This training enables a TA to better communicate her/his expertise to her/his students when s/he becomes a faculty member. Serving as a TA is integral to a TA’s success when s/he becomes a professor because the experience will enable her/him to teach more effectively and enhance students’ learning.

Learning to Teach Something New

I have taught school finance as an adjunct professor at the graduate level for many years, and my ideal role is that of professor. I enjoy teaching, writing, publishing, and research. One of my greatest joys is observing how students begin to grasp school finance concepts and budgeting principles before ultimately developing an understanding of how proper school finance is linked to the provision of a top quality education. Like all students regardless of age, educational setting, or grade, the epiphany occurs differently and at different times for different students. Most importantly, the epiphany occurs and serves my students well over their careers.

The overwhelming majority of the students, who have attended my school finance course over the years as part of their Master’s in Education, are teachers. Almost all of my students report feeling some level of trepidation when registering for the course because school finance has the little or no overlap with other courses they have attended or previous life experiences. However, my students report that they find it instructive to attend a course that has the little or no overlap with other courses they have attended or previous life experiences because it helps them focus on understanding how students learn new things and, perhaps more importantly, how to hone their skills for teaching concepts that their students find new.

I help my students overcome their trepidation by demonstrating how they have performed many of the budgetary process steps that we discuss in the course in their own life; they called them something different but many of the underlying concepts are the same. Slowly but surely my students gain confidence. Many of my students have told me following the course that their experience in overcoming their trepidation for attending a course focusing on “something new” and learning the new material has informed their pedagogy.

Perhaps we can all benefit from accepting challenges to learn new things especially when these new things seem outside our comfort zone. Moreover, perhaps those studying to become teachers will work hard to understand what it is like for students who feel challenged learning new material because they fear they might fail while doing so. Similarly, those studying to become teachers might incorporate this understanding in their teaching by demonstrating the keen sense of accomplishment that stems from learning something new and realizing a return on their investment that overwhelms their risk.