Teaching Assistant Minions

Often times I am asked, “can’t your teaching assistant do that?” ….when I am piled with emails, student appointments and marking.. And I find myself saying “no”.  Not everything can be or should be done by a teaching assistant. They certainly do a lot, but the personal emails cannot be answered by them, nor should they have to be responsible for vetting exam questions among other tasks.  However, I looked at my various teaching assistants in the different courses that I taught and I realized that there was some work that I was doing with my students that could certainly be handled by the teaching assistants and that they could probably do the job more efficiently and better than me.

I spent much more time with my teaching assistants this year in training them in what I wanted their tutorials to look like. I made sure to stress to my class that these teaching assistants were the first line of support and stressed the importance of tutorial time (making these mandatory likely didn’t hurt either).  I wanted tutorials to be conversational. I wanted students to talk and ask questions. I wanted students to answer questions, and for them to try to identify what they didn’t know.  I know many have tried to overcome these types of challenges by “flipping the classroom” a term that is pretty hot in education land at the moment. But I thought that a well run tutorial could achieve some of those same goals.


I am so glad that I’ve poured my energy into working with my teaching assistants and giving them the tools to build a rapport with their individual groups of students. I have tried to provide weekly suggestions for content to be covered in tutorial, and have made much more of an effort to touch base with my teaching assistants on a frequent basis.  In these weekly emails, I’ve also asked each lecturer to provide a working problem for each teaching assistant to cover in tutorial. I have had the teaching assistants then split their group of 40 into small groups to work through practice questions, to encourage more student talking and less of a reiteration of the lecture by the tutorial leader.  I have heard that students have started to feel comfortable with the teaching assistants and have approached them for studying tips.  I have heard how they are enjoying the problem sets and group work and that they are feeling more comfortable with the material.  All of these things I can’t accomplish on my own for such a mass of individuals.

My teaching assistants are amazing and I have finally realized that they are capable of doing much more and it was me that was holding them back from providing such an essential connection to more students. It may seem trivial, but it’s taken me a number of years to learn how to mentor teaching assistants and how to use them more effectively.  I’m glad I’ve made this year my year to focus on tutorials and mentoring graduate students in these roles, it has made my courses so much better and taught me not to be a “glory” hog.


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