By Tom Wright
This entry is a list (with explanations) of the five most important things I have learned in my years as a teaching assistant (i.e. leading a recitation section for a professor). Individual results may vary…
1.) Make sure you know how to do ALL the problems when you go into class. You don’t have to have them all written up nicely, but the one at the end of the chapter where you say, “Eh, I’ll figure it out in class,” is invariably the one that someone will ask and you can’t answer.
2.) You may mess up in class. If you do, admit your mistake and make sure students understand that you messed up; otherwise, they will be trying to figure out why A implies B without understanding that A was written incorrectly. If you realize your mistake is significant enough that you can’t finish the problem, say something like, “I’ll let you do the rest as a homework, but here’s how you start,” and then do whatever you can. On a related note:
2a.) I generally allow myself one absolutely major screw-up per section per semester. That way, you’re prepared, but if you do screw up, you can write it off as your mulligan. Any more than that, though, and you’re wasting the students’ time.
3.) Students will come to you with complaints on how hard their homework/tests are graded or how unfair the curve is. Refer them to the professor. He or she will be more than happy to take responsibility for his class being “tough”. On the other hand, don’t let a venting session break out in class; it’s not productive, and it only serves to demean the professor.
4.) Actually write stuff on the board – don’t just say it. Students will zone out in a 50 minute class, often to think about what you just said; they shouldn’t be penalized for this. When you do write, start at the top left, go down the board, go to the top of the next board, go down the board, repeat until you run out of boards, then erase the first board entirely and start again. Simple, but it makes boardwork much clearer, and you’d be surprised how many professors just write in the largest open space on the board instead of erasing. Just remember: how you write it on the board is how it will appear in everyone’s notes.
5.) Most importantly, relax. You won’t be the best TA in the world in your first semester of teaching. Teaching is an acquired skill. On the other hand, you won’t irreparably harm the students for the rest of their careers, either. Just do your best.