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TAs should be formally taught to teach

Horrible TAs are in charge of our grades, and that just isn't right

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Image Credits: Guardian (Flickr)

We’re all friends here, so we can all agree that a Teaching Assistant (TA) can make or break a course. I’m not suggesting that the university should function without TAs; they provide a crucial service to the school, and a shit-show would ensue if they stopped their work.

Classes would become exponentially smaller, particularly the lower division undergraduate courses with hundreds of students. There’s no way the professor could take on the workload alone. Thus, instead of the six years it might take to complete a degree (thanks to SFU’s shitty enrolment system), it could take several more years due to class unavailability. It’s more economically efficient to use TAs as ‘mini-profs,’ as they receive less pay and there are many grad students willing to take on the job.

But the problem is that SFU seems to let any and every interested student take the reigns on tutorials, and mark the assignments and exams that influence our success in class. Unfortunately, not giving TAs any formal education on teaching hinders everyone’s learning opportunities.

TAs run tutorials, clarify and expound upon material covered by the professor, and then they’re put in charge of our grades. Those grades impact our futures through our access to scholarships, graduate school, and employment. Having a TA who lacks proper teaching qualities, who doesn’t know how to clarify in multiple ways, or who delivers any explanation with condescension and a holier-than-thou attitude has ruined many of the first-year classes I’ve taken.

Just because a student has a high GPA and the time to take on the position, doesn’t mean they’re qualified to teach.

One of my psychology TAs would never give me a straight answer, or would just repeat back every question I’d ask, without actually helping me or furthering the discussion. An English TA I once had would expect our work to look completely different from what the professor had asked for — that class was almost the death of me.

Most faculties publish their TA applications online, and after having browsed through many of them I’m not able to find anything on these applications that asks about teaching ability. Not a single one placed specific importance on the applicants’ interpersonal abilities.

Now, as with any job, many prospective TAs are in it for the money, experience, and networking opportunities. But some of them also harbour plans to become post-secondary educators.

The school does both TAs and students a disservice by not requiring any prior teaching ability or graded professional development courses for the TA position. Of course, SFU’s TA Learning Guide states that TAs can attend free orientation and workshops every semester, but they’re optional. Maybe they need to be mandatory.

Moreover, we have a whole faculty devoted to education. Maybe SFU should find a mutually beneficial professional training program that gives education students experience in teaching people — specifically TAs — how to teach.

Just because a student has a high GPA and the time to take on the position, doesn’t mean they’re qualified. I know grad students have a lot on their plate, but if SFU invested more time and money in helping these students become better educators, it could pay off for everyone in the long run.

  • ADZ

    While I agree that there should be more support given to starting TAs in developing their pedagogical skills, I feel like this article can only be written from the perspective of an undergraduate without firsthand experience of the teaching assistant system. You make it sound like graduate students are entitled to teaching work. This is not the case. Finding a TAship is competitive, and securing one has more to do with one’s teaching history than GPA. You know those reviews you write of us at the end of the semester, where you grade our performance? Those determine whether or not we get to teach again. All semester long, we are monitored by the professors we work for, who screen all of our grades, attend our tutorials, and make sure that we are up to standard. This is appropriate, because for practically all of us, this is our first time at the front of the classroom. Your article makes it seem like this is an oversight on the part of the university, and that TAs should be more qualified, but this argument is circular.

    Asking for TAs to have prior teaching experience is like asking someone applying for their first accounting job to already have accounting experience. TAing is where first-time teachers get their experience, and they do so with a support network of professors and administrators who are there to help them out, and to field and address concerns from students about that TA’s teaching abilities.

    No one hates a bad TA more than another TA. Many of us put lots of work into our teaching, as — like you’ve said — a good number of this want to continue doing this as our jobs post-graduation. I’ve heard horror stories from my students about other teaching assistants, and I’ve always encouraged them to do the same thing: bring it up. Talk to the prof. Email the department secretary. If a server dunks their thumb into your plate of noodles, do you eat the noodles anyway, while complaining about the state of restaurants in general? If you feel that a TA is jeopardizing your education, use the student-as-customer model to your advantage, and let the department know. You’d be doing us all a favour.

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