lecture notes, advising students what they should memorize,
information they should be familiar with, and what they should
disregard. I would also provide study tips—anything from mnemonic devices to problem-solving approaches. We’re essentially
coaches for our students—sometimes the encouragement we
provide is just as important as the scientific information.
Your students use your 50-minute recitation period to peruse
Snapchat and Instagram. You’ve been struggling with these
non-participative students all semester.
I learned early on that freshly baked cookies are a great
incentive to elicit student participation. I would begin each
class with a multipart question that would incorporate the
entire week’s content. The students would compete against
one another to solve the problem, and whoever obtained the
correct answer first would receive a treat (only awarded after
they wrote the solution on the board and explained their
thought processes). This method allowed me to not only
maximize student participation, but to also zero in on my
students’ trouble spots and identify what
Although nobody wants to bear the
reputation of being the “mean T.A.,” it’s
quite reasonable to call on your students.
As opposed to having a passive class that
fails the first test (which always acts as a
wakeup call), you can save your students
the anxiety of needing to catch up later on
by encouraging them to engage in your
class. It’s also okay to be explicit in the beginning and state that you don’t intend to
perform the majority of the talking—that’s
the professor’s job. Your students should be the ones explaining their solutions to your problems. Your function is to clarify
concepts and answer questions.
It’s 11:53 pm—the eve of the organic chemistry final—and your
students are at your door with last-minute questions. Sure,
you’re a bit of a pushover—you said you’d be available for help
“whenever,” but you didn’t think they’d take you seriously.
I was a bit naïve when I embarked on my first semester
as a T.A. I wanted my students to like me, and so I probably
appeared overly friendly (I hope not creepy), and overextended myself in offering assistance. No, I did not give out my
home address, but I was religious about replying to e-mail and
would often meet with students on my own time to review
course material. I later learned the importance of establishing
T.A. –student boundaries can take on various forms. I’ve
heard stories about teaching assistants who confessed to only
checking their e-mail once a day—between 2:00 and 3:00 pm.
Only during this hour would they respond to student inqui-
ries. Other T.A.s claimed they maintained a strict sleeping
regimen that required 13 hours of shut-eye a night, during
which it was impossible for them to respond to e-mails. So as
to prevent themselves from being “found,” I know T.A.s who
identified with a lab group other than the one to which they
actually belong. While these are extreme examples of T.A.–
student boundaries, they do enable both parties to remain
independent and, in some ways, they promote a sense of
anonymity for the T.A. (Perhaps this is why I found T.A.s so
enigmatic as an undergraduate?)
If you’re interested in advocating a more “candid” image
for teaching assistants and establishing meaningful relationships with your students, then I would advise paying heed to
the following (obvious) recommendations:
1. Do not go out partying with your students.
2. Do not date your students.
3. Set a cut-off time for e-mail responses (e. g., 10:00 pm).
Stick to these and you shouldn’t get into trouble.
Inorganic chemistry exam grades are in. Although the averages among all teaching assistants are comparable, your students
did not perform well on a certain topic. You can’t help but feel
guilty about it.
The great manifestation of graduate
school guilt! I at first believed my students’
mastery of the course material was a reflec-
tion of my teaching ability and that I was
the one culpable for their performance.
Did I not stress proton coupled electron
transfer enough during the review session?
Wait—didn’t we have a blizzard during the
week of PCET and recitation was can-
celled? I would sometimes dwell on this for
days on end! However, as I gained more
teaching experience, I realized I wasn’t
the one to blame for topics my students (er…the entire class)
couldn’t fully grasp. The key is to take it with a grain of salt.
One of the best methods to gauge your performance is
through course evaluations. In my experience, these anonymous assessments often provide sincere and constructive
criticism. It turned out my original qualms over teaching—my
paranoia about successfully conveying content and communicating with my students—were all for naught. Perhaps the
most rewarding aspect of being a T.A. is discovering you’ve
had an impact on your students. Whether it be inspiring them
to study Chemistry or captivating them with exciting research
anecdotes so that they decide to join your lab group, it’s these
unique experiences that make being a T.A. worthwhile. n
Marisa Sanders is a third-year Ph.D.
candidate at Princeton University,
where she formerly served as T.A. for
two semesters of general chemistry.
She is also a member of the Younger
Chemists Committee (YCC) and the
Graduate Education Advisory Board
(GEAB) of ACS.
Your students should be
the ones explaining
their solutions to your
problems. Your function
is to clarify concepts
and answer questions.