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UIC TA Handbook - The Comfort Zone: Finding Your Place in the Classroom

By Loretta M. Roach

Former Teaching Assistant, English
UIC College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


Though the single title Teaching Assistant can have a number of job descriptions attached to it, all of us inhabit that murky area between the world of students and the world of faculty. This ambiguity can cause some confusion when we try to understand and establish our function within the classroom. The following are suggestions to help you to define and assess your role as a teaching assistant, whether your primary responsibility is grading papers, leading a discussion section, directing a lab session, or conducting an entire course.

  1. Begin by opening the lines of communication between yourself and your faculty supervisor. Don't feel shy about asking your supervisor to clearly articulate what is expected of you both in and out of the classroom. Compare the expectations of your supervisor with your own. What do you expect to learn from your experience as a TA? How can your responsibilities facilitate this?
  2. Create a support system. Cultivating friendships with other TAs, both new and experienced, is perfect way to establish an informal support group. In many departments TAs organize brown-bag lunches or get-togethers to discuss issues related to teaching, to share positive and negative experiences, and to simply provide a shoulder to lean on.
  3. Take advantage of any seminars or training sessions hosted by your department or the university. In addition to providing valuable information, seminars are another way of developing relationships with other TAs.
  4. Remember that no matter what your responsibilities include, you are in a position of authority. Think about all this entails before you step into the classroom. How does this effect the way in which you present yourself to the students? In what ways are you responsible to your students as far as establishing an atmosphere of equality and fair-mindedness? Thinking about this in advance can boost your level of confidence and enable you to further define your place in the classroom.
  5. Clearly communicate to your students exactly what is expected of them, thereby defining their relation­ ship to you. If you are guiding a discussion or lab session, interweave your expectations with those of the lead professors. If your primary responsibility is grading papers, be sure to explain the established rubric.  Include specific information about policies and procedures (absenteeism, late papers, missed exams, etc.) on your syllabus if you are conducting your own course.
  6. Ask your students and I or faculty supervisor to give you a mid-term review. If possible, have your faculty supervisor (or another respected faculty member or fellow TA) observe you in action. Compare others views of your performance in the classroom with your own. What can you learn from others perceptions of your role?
  7. Take time to reflect. Now that you have settled into your role as a teaching assistant, how does your experience compare with your earlier expectations? If your responsibilities are evolving, how is that affecting your role in the classroom? Share your assessment with your supervisor or discuss the experience with other TAs if you feel comfortable doing so.

Remember to take the time to enjoy your teaching experience and your role as a TA!

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