Are you a good mentor to your TAs? Here, experienced professors share practical tips for fostering collaboration during meetings, setting goals, and more.
While some universities offer excellent guidance on how to manage teaching assistants (TAs), including the provision of formal TA-management guidelines for faculty and/or handbooks for TAs, other institutions present little to no training in the mentorship of these advanced academics. Even if your university does offer support, the follow-through may be inconsistent from department to department; in the worst of cases, time-honored but toxic traditions include hazing, overworking, and demeaning this eager workforce. Whatever the current climate in your department and university, creating a healthy culture of positive mentorship for your TAs can deliver huge rewards for all involved.
“Professors sometimes hesitate to mentor TAs, but if you start off right, you establish a collaboration that actually frees up time for you to deal with other key issues,” says UCLA Associate Professor and author Dr. Gaye Theresa Johnson. “I can’t emphasize enough how amazing my teaching assistants are, and how important they are to me and to my students.”
Recently, Course Hero spoke with Johnson, an associate professor of Chicana/o Studies with more than 800 students per semester and a team of 17 TAs, who has been training TAs for nearly 15 years. We also connected with 10-year teaching veteran Dr. Mary-Frances O’Connor, associate professor of psychology at University of Arizona, whose classes range from 150 to 300 students and who typically mentors two TAs each semester. Here, Johnson and O’Connor offer their insights and tips on how to encourage collaboration so that you can benefit fully from your TAs’ skills — and they can benefit fully from your mentorship. At the end of this piece, we also invite you to share your own TA-mentorship tips in the comments. (What better way to continue the collaboration?)
1. At meetings, be a facilitator, not the leader
“The week before class starts, I hold a meeting with my TAs,” says Johnson. “I present the books that we’ll use for the semester, in the order they will be used. I give them the big themes of the semester, the pedagogical aims.”
O’Connor, too, holds a pre-semester meeting where she splits up the “grunt work of getting things done.” For further discussion, she relies predominantly on email, but she also meets with each TA in person two to three more times during the semester.
Johnson connects more often, hosting weekly meetings with her TAs “without fail,” while mindfully eschewing a “leadership” role and focusing more on facilitating the conversation. This means that the TAs run the meetings, for the most part. They provide support and answers for each other on such topics as grading rubrics, teaching strategies, and skills for working through difficult communications with students. For Johnson, these meetings “help to mitigate emails, allow the TAs to see each other, create a culture of mutuality, and foster confidence.”
2. Use team language: Our, we, us
During that first meeting, Johnson poses the query, “What is our role as teachers?” Even that word choice — our versus your — serves to foster a culture of collaboration, though it helps to clearly spell out your expectations as well. “I share my philosophy of who they are to me. I lay it down that I look at them as a teaching team. I am part of that team, but they should also see each other as resources. This is really important! Considering each other as mutual resources really cuts down on the work.”
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3. Clarify skill sets and goals, including time expectations
Before the semester starts, Johnson asks the teaching assistants “straight up” what their skill sets are. “There can be surprises in what they know — and what they don’t,” she explains. “I set them up with an understanding of the challenges of the team, and a shared agreement.”
Some professors and learning institutions prefer to put an agreement on paper. According to O’Connor, the UA Psychology Department insists that their professors use a “TA Expectations” doc at the beginning of the semester, which she has found “quite helpful” in ensuring common goals and understanding. Creating such a doc together, at an early meeting, also fosters a sense of ownership and a higher level of involvement for the TAs who helped draft it.
O’Connor adds that drawing up a list of a TA responsibilities can be illuminative for the professor, making it evident just how much those TAs must tackle. “Our TAs and professors sign off on their documents, so goals and accountability are clear,” she adds.
If you choose to create your own such document, O’Connor advises including a section for noting the amount of time that TAs should spend on each area of support. “Teaching assistants often spend a lot of time and effort — possibly on things that don’t matter much to a professor,” notes O’Connor. “This document removes that risk.”
4. Provide a window to your thought process
Both Johnson and O’Connor emphasize the importance of this. To that end, they copy their TAs on emails with students wherein a problem is resolved. They discuss why a particular lecture is going to go down a certain way. They review the whys and wherefores of midterm content.
“I like to note to my TAs why I am going off on a tangent in a lecture, or why I am making a writing assignment worth so much, why I am not taking late entries,” says O’Connor.
Johnson agrees, “I think that modeling is very important — my TAs watch very closely how I’m teaching, because they want to be professors, too. They see what I do in class, and then I can explain what might be puzzling or interesting to them.”
O’Connor also discusses time management and boundary setting with her TAs because, even if they don’t become teachers, these skill sets can be used in any endeavor.
5. Set them up for success, then let them fly
“As with all management positions, you have to figure out how much leeway to give,” says O’Connor. Setting up TAs with basic teaching materials can help ensure that students receive the instruction — and grades — they deserve. Since, historically, O’Connor has taught classes with heavy writing requirements, for example, she has created “cheat sheets” of grading rubrics for her TAs to use as comps, making it “as easy as possible to check off boxes from that rubric.”
Still, both educators emphasize the importance of allowing TAs to set their own minds to a task. It may be helpful to offer suggestions about what can happen, while allowing them to work out the details and specifics on their own or with other TAs.
These professors have often seen the beauty of this light-touch but hands-on mentorship approach, as it is reflected in the interactions between the TAs themselves.
“One TA is typically more experienced than the other,” says O’Connor. “Since I use a lot of technology in my work, the more senior TA takes on that responsibility, while the less senior TA will take on more grading. The more experienced TA naturally teaches the less experienced one as they work together.”
Concomitantly, adds Johnson, working with TAs has facilitated her own growth as an educator and mentor. “Because my TAs can come from very different pedagogies than I am in, I am constantly learning from them — which I also am able to incorporate into my classes,” she says.