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Now that you've made it through the planning stages of your lab/section/class, you'll want to try out what you've planned. Because we're aware that even "...the best laid plans..." CAN fall apart, this section is designed to introduce you to selected aspects of being a TA, both in the classroom and during office hours.

For the first time you are an instructor, rather than one of the students in the class. Suddenly you're facing "your students" instead of the board and "they" seem to be expecting someone to take charge. The responsibility to get things rolling is yours. What is likely to happen at your first class meeting.
The following are excerpts from some new TAs' "first days:" (6)

I'll never forget the first day of my first quiz section. I was very nervous. I couldn't sleep the entire weekend before. I couldn't think how to open the first day. How should I present myself? Being very short, I had visions of those towering freshmen not taking me seriously. Should I be very severe and set a martial tone for the entire quarter or should I walk in smiling and easygoing? Should I wear a long skirt and pull my hair back or wear hot pants? I plotted my attack upon the lectern-should I stand behind it, beside it or in front of it? Did I want its authority to attach to me or did I want to be considered part of the group? I practiced roll call, passing out the reading list, the small preview of course material, and class dismissal. On the Monday of the first day I got up at 6:30 a.m. and dressed very carefully... I made a large breakfast, though by the time I was ready to eat, I couldn't. When I arrived, fear and anxiety were running wild through my body. My heart was thumping. Every surface I touched, I stuck to. And I shook. I watched the clock and counted off the seconds to 9 a.m. sharp. I didn't want to arrive early and have to stand there waiting...

9 a.m. I plodded into the classroom. The lights were dazzling. The electricity of the people sent my blood rushing faster. There were so many of them. All rustling papers. A hush fell as I neared the lectern. It was so quiet I could hear my pulse in my ears. I reached the lectern and turned around. Forty eyes were focused on my body.

I blurted, "Hello. This is the first class I've ever taught, and I'm really nervous." The students sighed, slumped in their chairs, and relaxed. And so did I.

My first section went quite well, I thought. The professor had introduced a few very basic concepts, which I thought I understood fully. I had tried to explain them to the students so that they also understood them. Buoyed with a sense of some self-confidence, I prepared to present my second section with the same material, but it didn't go as smoothly. A few of the brighter students began to question me about subtle nuances in the concepts which I had failed to consider. I began to feel incompetent. As they continued to probe, my answers became more and more contradictory and incoherent. My embarrassment increased because I realized that I, who had always been a student and therefore a passive receiver of definitions, didn't fully understand these basic concepts well enough to answer others' questions. Because of this and my impression that a teacher should know everything, I kept muddling around getting myself and the students more confused. Finally I managed to change the subject, but as I left the classroom I felt that I had lost their respect. They would be intent on tricking or embarrassing me from then on.

I was apprehensive about that particular section the next week. During the week, I thought about my role in the classroom. I spent a long time preparing for the section and thoroughly re-prepared the concepts I'd tried to review before. Happily, the next week's section went much better. In fact, I enjoyed it. It became my favorite section. The change, of course, was entirely within me. I knew that I did have gaps in my knowledge of the subject. Why not admit that and let the students know that I was learning too? I saw that it would be ineffectual for me to place myself above them as some Omniscient Purveyor of Knowledge. How could I be when almost the only reason I was in front of the class was because I had a few more courses in the subject than they had?

I had become defensive and hostile when asked questions I couldn't answer because I assumed the students were asking such questions to embarrass me. The next week I admitted my ignorance, apologized for trying to be something I wasn't, and re-explained the concepts. I encouraged them to ask questions. I promised that when I didn't know the answers I would say so and encourage the class to explore for the answer.

I learned from the experience the importance of honesty with yourself and your students. It's much more comfortable for you and for them to realize that even as you're discussing topics with them you're learning yourself.

As these excerpts illustrate, you are likely to feel some trepidation the first time you face your students. If you think about it for a minute, though, what you probably are experiencing is somewhat akin to stage fright. Admit it, aren't you fairly EXCITED as well as nervous about this first encounter?

Realizing that your competence and self-concept is somewhat on the line, what follows are some suggestions to ease the pain and increase the excitement of your first day as TA.

1. REMEMBER, YOU WERE SELECTED TO BE A TA. Your department has some reason to believe in you, so believe in yourself.
2. BOTH YOU AND YOUR STUDENTS ARE PEOPLE. Try relating from the "human" angle. If you get nervous despite this, then...
3. PLAN AHEAD AND CONSIDER WHAT YOU WANT TO DO THE FIRST DAY. Prepare or have available the course syllabus. Know where and when you'll be holding office hours. Attempt to obtain relevant information about assignments, tests, and grading for the quarter before you enter class. Ask a friend to remind you of your name before you go into class, so that you can...
4. INTRODUCE YOURSELF TO THE CLASS and hand out the syllabus or any relevant materials you've prepared. The syllabus can include your name, office number, consultation hours, phone number (or you can write these on the board), the books for the course, topics you'll be covering during the quarter, etc. Discuss the syllabus and course organization with students and explain how your class fits in with lectures or other courses students are likely to be taking. If you are at all nervous about the class, the syllabus will give you and the students something to concentrate on and may serve as a springboard for discussion. In addition, it will show them that you are organized, have planned ahead, and think the course is important enough to warrant your time and effort.
5. TELL YOUR STUDENTS A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF on the first day. This will remind them that you're human. (They may be nervous, too!). If you want to inform them that you're a new TA, that's fine-BUT DON'T COME ACROSS AS HELPLESS. Rather, let them know how they can help you AND fulfill their responsibilities as students (e.g., "Stop me if you have a question", "Let me know if I make an obvious mistake.").

Your first experience as a teacher need not be disastrous. You know more than you think, and your students are likely to cooperate if given a chance. Let them know what you want to do and how. If it sounds at all reasonable, they'll help you set the tone-up front, honest, and human-right from the start.

As the TA, you help to create the climate in your room. Students seem to learn best when they feel that, as students, they are as important to the TA as the material to be covered. (Of course, students contribute to the atmosphere, too.) What follows are some tips to help you create an atmosphere in which students know that you are aware of them and that you feel they are important.

1. LEARN YOUR STUDENTS' NAMES, preferably by the end of the first class. This may seem like a tall order, but calling your students by name goes a long way towards helping them feel at ease and included in the class.
2. MAKE EYE CONTACT WITH YOUR STUDENTS when you are speaking to the group as a whole. Instead of speaking to the clock at the back of the room, look directly at different students in different parts of the room. Students then feel that you SEE them.
3. BE AWARE OF YOUR STUDENTS' BODY LANGUAGE. Slumped bodies, rustling papers, private conversations, etc., may all be signs that students are not paying attention, are bored, or don't understand. You can try moving around the room, varying the speed of your speech, asking some questions, or whatever else seems appropriate to refocus students back on you. If, on the other hand, you see students leaning forward, waving their hands in the air, looking directly at you, etc., chances are you've got them where you want them.
4. BE SENSITIVE TO STUDENT NOTE-TAKING NEEDS. Whenever you can, use phrases like, "There are four applications of this theory... The first one is..." Your care in phrasing and pacing what you have to say lets students know you're aware of their presence.

The above hints will help you make good contact with your students. There are, in addition, some errors that TAs frequently make:

1. THE END OF THE PERIOD TIME-CRUNCH. There are five minutes left and you realize you will not finish the material so you race through what's left in an effort to get it done. The difficulties here are that a) the material becomes more important to you than the students when this occurs, b) your increased speed makes it difficult for students to absorb the material, and c) you'll probably do an inadequate job of covering the material in a coherent manner. For all of these reasons, students may sense your loss of contact with them and may turn you off. Your haste will be wasted. Let your students know that you are running out of time and outline the unfinished material on the board. Refer students to relevant places in their textbook and begin the next section with a brief review of what you covered or should have covered at the last meeting.
2. THE HIDDEN TA. You stand behind the teacher's desk or lab table, with all your material on the lectern, and speak to your students from there, occasionally raising your eyes from your carefully prepared notes. If you continue from this position, all other hints for good student contact may be wasted since students may quickly feel your lack of involvement with them. Move around the room! Stand near various students! Look at different people! These (and other) techniques not only help you maintain contact with students and break the monotony, but also allow you to see the room from a student's perspective.
3. THE PRIVATE CONVERSATION SYNDROME. Student A asks you a question and you respond to that student, developing a three-minute, interesting (to the two of you) dialogue. The other students in the room may feel left out or bored since the question may not have been theirs. When answering a student's question, respond not only to the asker but to the other students in the room as if they were equally interested in the response.

In general, to maintain excellent student contact, DO THE THINGS THAT YOU WOULD HAVE LIKED YOUR TEACHERS TO DO.

Any setting, including your classroom, exerts many and frequently subtle influences on the people in that environment. (Restaurant reviewers call it "ambiance" and rate it along with the quality of the food.) An uncomfortable environment can jeopardize the very climate you are trying to create. Below are some ideas to aid you in creating a classroom environment and structure which facilitates both your teaching and your students' learning.

First make sure you VISIT YOUR ASSIGNED ROOM(S) A FEW DAYS BEFORE YOU TEACH THERE. If you discover you're teaching a section of 40 in a room designed for 25, you may have a chance to find a better location. If necessary, contact Room Scheduling or the appropriate person in your department to discuss these concerns in advance.

Once settled, TAKE A LOOK AT THE WAY THE ROOM IS ORGANIZED. Seating is a prime consideration, and it can do a great deal to either facilitate or hinder what goes on in your classroom. The traditional rule of thumb is to make sure that all the students are clearly within the instructor's range of vision.

Remember that you can manipulate seating to foster any number of effects from closeness to conflict. There are any number of ways to arrange seating, so you'll want to experiment and solicit suggestions from your students. For example, IF YOU WANT LOTS OF DISCUSSION, place desks or chairs in a circle or horseshoe. This arrangement facilitates the give-and-take of conversation inasmuch as students can see one another when they talk. Students are also much more likely to get to know one another in a face-to-face seating arrangement and are more apt to stay attentive throughout the hour, as it is more difficult to withdraw or space out from a circle without being noticed. IF YOU PLAN TO LECTURE, arrange the furniture so that all students can easily see you without straining. Ask your students to comment upon present arrangements and on what would be useful for them.

Good environments are frequently flexible ones. Feel free to have students move their chairs several times during a class. For example, you might have them move into a circle for discussion, into small groups for in-depth exploration of a topic, and back to rows for your lecture. Experiment with different room arrangements to find those which work best for you.

A TA's voice can play a large part in the generation or termination of students' interest in a subject. There are three major components to a good speaking voice: 1) volume (loudness or softness); 2) speed of words (pace); 3) modulation or pitch (highness and lowness). The idea is to speak LOUD ENOUGH to be heard, without forcing the students farthest away from you to strain their ears, and SOFTLY ENOUGH for people to understand what you are saying, and QUICKLY ENOUGH that people don't doze off while waiting for your next word. Finally, MODULATE YOUR PITCH so that you neither drone people off to dreamland nor remind them of a theater performance.

How do you know if your speaking voice is right for the room size and for your students? The following suggestions may help you decide if and where you need improvement.

1. Ask your students if they can hear you, if you are going too fast, etc.
2. Watch your students. Their occasional lack of attention may be caused by not being able to hear you, by being bored by your voice, or by literally not understanding your words.
3. Tape yourself using a portable tape recorder placed in the back of the room. If you are speaking loudly enough, the tape will pick up your voice.
4. Listen to your own speech for annoying habits like repeatedly saying, "Uh", or "Um", or "You know", or "Okay, okay?".
5. Avoid dropping your voice at the end of your sentence or thought.

In general, watch your students' responses, ask for feedback, and if you have questions about the sound of your presentation, voice them.

The guiding principle of board work is: LOOK AT YOUR WRITING AS THOUGH YOU WERE A STUDENT IN YOUR OWN CLASS. Probably, almost anything you put on the board will be clear to you. The task, however, is to make your presentation clear to your students. Here are some points to keep in mind while planning a board presentation.

STUDENTS MUST BE ABLE TO SEE AND TO READ WHAT YOU HAVE WRITTEN. Illegible or obscured work is valueless. Watch out if you have small handwriting, tend to scrawl, or write too lightly. Sit in one of the last rows and take a critical look at your board work. Unless the floor of the classroom is sloped, students in the middle of the room won't be able to see the bottom of the board. Some TA's like to mark the off the "bottom line of visibility" with a chalk line. If there is a desk at the front of the class, keep it clear of objects that might obstruct vision. Additionally, try to keep your work visible for as long as possible. If you are right-handed, fill the right-hand panel first, then move to the panel on the left and continue your writing. In this way, YOU will not be blocking the view of students copying the writing that you have just completed.

YOUR BOARD WORK MUST BE ORGANIZED SO THAT STUDENTS WILL BE ABLE TO INTERPRET THEIR NOTES LATER. (a) First erase the board completely. This step is especially important in mathematics, where stray lines may be interpreted as symbols. (b) If you are to solve a problem or prove a theorem, write a complete statement of the problem or theorem on the board, or write a precise reference. (c) Fill in one panel at a time, always starting at the top and moving down. (d) Make your notation consistent with that in the textbook or the professor's lecture, so that students do not have to translate from one system of symbols into another. (e) Underline, or in some other way mark the most important parts of you presentation-the major assumptions, conclusions, or intermediate steps that you plan to refer to later on. Colored chalk may help to clarify drawings.

ERASE ONLY WHEN YOU HAVE RUN OUT OF SPACE TO WRITE. Modifying boardwork in midstream can be a frustrating experience for students who are trying to transcribe your material into their notebooks. A physics TA may reach a crucial point in the derivation of an equation and then quickly erase and replace terms. A biology TA may draw a diagram and then rapidly change first one part of the diagram and then another to show a process. If you are modifying a drawing, use dotted lines or some other technique to show changes. Remember that students cannot make the same erasures that you do without losing their written record of intermediate steps: you can alter parts of a drawing much faster than they can reproduce the whole thing.

IF YOU FIND THAT YOU HAVE MADE A MISTAKE, STOP. Don't go back over the last three panels madly erasing minus signs: first explain your error, then go back and make corrections, preferably with a different color of chalk.

IF YOU ARE PRESENTING MATERIAL THAT YOU WANT STUDENTS TO DUPLICATE IN THEIR NOTES, YOU NEED TO GIVE THEM TIME TO COPY WHAT YOU HAVE WRITTEN. They should not be asked to analyze while they are writing. When you want them to make or discuss a point, stop writing. Let people catch up to you (they may be lagging behind by two or three lines). THEN begin your discussion. Similarly, if you have engaged in a long discussion without writing very much on the board, allow them time to summarize the discussion in their own minds and to write their summary down in their notes before you again begin to use the board or to speak.

AVOID USING THE BOARD AS A LARGE DOODLING PAD. Students assume that what you write on the board is important. The board should serve to highlight and clarify your discussion or lecture. Used wisely, the board will enhance and underscore your presentation, not diminish it.

FIND OUT IF YOU ARE USING THE BOARD EFFECTIVELY. (a) At some point, ask your students if they can read or make sense of what you have written. Don't do this every five minutes-an occasional check, however, is in order. (b) After class, without prior notice, request one of your good and one of your average students to lend you their notes. If the notes seem incomplete or incoherent, ask yourself what you could have done to make your presentation more clear. (c) View a videotape of your presentation, putting yourself in the place of a student taking notes.

As a TA, you are expected to hold office hours for your students. Your department should provide you with office space for this purpose. Generally, TAs are asked to schedule between two to four hours per week for student consultations. It is likely that you will be asked to share your office with at least one other TA, so it is advisable for the two (or more) of you to get together early in the quarter to attempt to arrange non-conflicting office hours (it's usually much easier to keep your mind on helping a student when there isn't another conversation occurring simultaneously in the room).

Varying hours may be a good idea. Rather than scheduling your hours MWF 1-2:00, you might set up hours like M 1-2:00, TU 10:00-11:00, and F 11:00-12:00. That way, you may avoid having to schedule individual appointments with students whose schedules conflict with your 1-2:00 time slot.

Some TAs have found it desirable to require their students to make at least one visit during office hours. If you can get students to show up once and they find the experience pleasant and useful (rather than painful), chances are that you'll be seeing students regularly during your office hours. Realistically, visits are likely to be cyclical. You can expect anxious faces at your door right before exams and as deadlines approach for papers or assignments.

Office hours can be used to peruse mistakes on papers and tests, to discuss strategies for future assignments, to clarify confusing points in last week's lecture, to demystify a demonstration given in class, or to help you get to know your students better. The rapport that you establish with students during office hours is likely to carry over into your class.

SOME CAUTIONS: As a new TA, you may find yourself rewriting your students' work, giving them answers that they might be able to figure out for themselves, or getting sucked into sad stories that students may tell you and extending work deadlines far beyond the bounds of reality. If this sounds all too familiar, sit back for a minute. Just what are your responsibilities as a TA? You want to facilitate student progress in the course and help everyone make it through, but you do not want to be assuming the role of student for your own section!

consultation contacts

George Michaelsexecutive director2130 Kerr Hall
lisa berrysenior instructional consultant1130 Kerr Hall
mindy colininstructional consultant1130 Kerr Hall
Mary Lou Ramos database and ESCI administrator1130 Kerr Hall
Aisha Wedlaw ESCI assistant1124 Kerr Hall
Breana Barakoffice manager 1130 Kerr Hall
faxfax: 805-893-5915