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Empowering Learners, Spring 2005
Extra-Classroom Teaching Handbook

Empowering Teaching Assistant by Expanding Duties and Responsibilities

Joanne Townsend

An issue significant to my experience as a teaching assistant was taking on additional duties to enhance my learning and make the position meaningful; to empower me to own all my various educational experiences in my classes and in those for which I was a teaching assistant; and to be more useful to the professors. My goal in writing this paper is to encourage professors to offer learning opportunities for T. A.s and for T. A.s to embrace their position as an important learning experience. There is much to be gained from learning by doing and this is a perfect example of education that benefits everyone, but does not fit into a structured curriculum. I encourage teachers and students to be both educator and learner. To do this, I recommend that professors expand their teaching assistants’ responsibilities and be not only a role model, but also a mentor. In return, student teaching assistants need to value the experience offered by professors who are willing to commit their time and energy and to use the experience as a time for learning new skills and gaining better understanding of the role of educator.

My recommendations for teaching assistants:

Doing things that are helpful for the professor

Keep attendance. Record who is in class and who arrives late and leaves early. Record whether absences are excused or not.

If the professor posts reading documents on Blackboard:

  • make sure the readings on the syllabus match the readings on Blackboard
  • make sure that the readings are legible on Blackboard
  • provide copies of each week’s readings with the department secretary for those experiencing difficulties with Blackboard for the first two or three weeks of classes

Make sure that assigned books for the course are available on reserve in the library.

Act as a liaison between students and professors. To do this, try to learn each student’s name, what class, and whether the course is part of their major.

Seeing the teaching assistant role as a learning experience

Often your duties will be limited and you may find yourself attending classes, but not having an active role. It may be a good idea, in thinking about the class, to design a course of study. For example, the class in which I was a teaching assistant met two days per week for lecture and one day for student-lead discussions. In thinking about the format for the course, I wanted to know if classroom discussions are useful in general; if they are beneficial for this particular class; how does the student conceptualize the role or importance of discussion; should students act as facilitators; is it helpful to have reading summaries; would thoughtful questions help guide students’ thinking; and do discussions empower students?

With the students’ and professors’ permission, I videotaped one of the discussion sessions. I was also permitted to design and administer a questionnaire to the students specifically about classroom discussions. The information will be helpful for me as I pursue my teaching certification and for my professor who will be able to use the results to re-shape or re-mold her pedagogy to further help students learn the material and to empower them to own it. More importantly, it has given me an opportunity to empower myself and to actively gain something valuable from my role as an extra classroom instructor.

Keeping a journal

This is an invaluable tool. It is hard to know at the beginning what will be valuable at the end. I recommend, per my professor’s suggestion, that the journal begin with the observations each day. Try to select one or two overall topics or something that struck you during class and write about it. Compare it to other experiences, tie it to readings about pedagogy or education, or simply explain your understanding of the issue. Throughout the semester, you will begin to see things that would not have become obvious or that may simply slip away because you had not noticed a pattern that your journal highlights.

Another benefit of a journal is that it can hold your frustrations and your confusions. Often, as a teaching assistant, we are confounded by our role. We are not the professor, but we represent the professor. We are a student, like the other students in the classroom, but in this role, we have knowledge that fellow classmates don’t have. They look to us as a guide, yet our power and role limit our ability to help students. This can be frustrating. Also, there may be times when something happens in the classroom that you cannot make sense out of and writing in your journal can help you work through it.

Use the journal also to write about things that are happening in your other classes and how they connect to what you are learning in your role as a teaching assistant.

Recommendations for Professors:

Engaging teaching assistants in course development

There are many ways that professors can enhance teaching assistants’ role in the course. One way is to engage T. A.s in developing course material, such as:

  • asking T. A. to read a previously unread book for the course and to provide a summary detailing its value or lack thereof to the class
  • asking T. A. to develop a plan for class on a day that the professor may be unavailable
  • asking T. A.s to read preliminary work done by the students. This can be extremely useful for students who want to become educators. It helps the T. A. to understand the level of the students’ work and to connect the course content with the students’ thinking.
  • asking T.A.s to assist in the writing of exam questions and answer outlines.

Writing exam questions is an important function and one that professors don’t often share with teaching assistants. However, to encourage professors and students to see the benefits of sharing this task, I offer an overall perspective on how it will empower professors as well as students. The three overarching issues that encompass the critical issue of writing exams are: (1) Empowering Teaching Assistants; (2) the Teaching Assistant as a learner; and (3) the Professor as learner.

(1). Empowering teaching assistants is extremely useful in a classroom setting. It improves the effectiveness of the position, it encourages T. A.s to take ownership of their role in the classroom, and it confirms the professor’s confidence in the teaching assistant’s teaching abilities and content knowledge of the course material. Writing test questions is a big responsibility and requires an understanding of the topic and the students in the classroom. Begin by incorporating, rewriting, and rethinking all of the questions, focusing on the broader topics and the interconnections that you want the students to realize. Try to anticipate the students’ reactions to the questions. Will they understand the question within the context of the course? Sharing knowledge and working as a team is empowering for T. A.s as well as for professors.

(2). T. A. as Learner encompasses expanding the role of student teaching assistants. Often teaching assistants have passive roles in classrooms. An empowered teaching assistant is an active learner and participant in the classroom. They learn new and useful skills that will benefit them in their studies and when they become educators. Also, they are empowered because they are learning and doing something that actually matters within the context of the course. They are learning how to be a teacher, how to write questions for an exam, why pedagogy matters when it comes to writing exams; and how to evaluate the overall effectiveness of the professor’s teaching style for that particular class

(3). Professors learn from their teaching assistants. They learn from the questions we ask about students and the course content; the ideas we raise; and from our perspective of the classroom dynamics. Professors gain insight into student teachers from the T.A.s writing of questions and formulating answer keys. Professors learn what we are learning from our praxis assignments. Teaching assistants can be sounding boards for ideas, impressions of students, evaluation of students’ work, the students ability to comprehend the subject, impact of students’ age and class standing on class participation; and whether or not certain subjects have been covered enough in class to include them on an exam.

Being a role model

It is important for professors to realize that their teaching assistants may see them as a role model. As future educators, T. A.s are watching and learning. How does the professor address the class? Is the professor respectful of the students? What are the professor’s priorities? Does the professor lecture? Does the professor ask the students questions? What do professors feel is important for the students to learn? How effective is the professor’s pedagogy?

Being a mentor to the teaching assistant

The professor as mentor is one who has stepped out of the role of supervisor into the role of partner in the learning process. They have the opportunity to create a personal relationship with their T. A.s and, as Richard Light highlights in “Good Mentoring and Advising,” personal relationships matter (94). Mentoring confirms that each person’s contribution is valued, that professors and students are learners, and that the professors’ actions encourage the T. A. to think about the connection between their personal lives and their academic work (Light 88). Being a role model to teaching assistants is valuable, but being a mentor may be more valuable. One of the most important things that a professor can do is to communicate openly and honestly with teaching assistants. It is helpful if the professor can meet with the T. A. on a regular basis to discuss how things are going. Professor’s support of the teaching assistant as a learner can empower the T. A.

Conclusion

Future research, that can only enhance and improve student teaching assistants’ role at Bryn Mawr College, might include training. Should teaching assistants be trained? If yes, who should train them, when should they be trained, and will they be trained for a specific course or to be a teaching assistant in general? Who will pay for training, the department or the college? Perhaps, classroom on-the-job training is preferable and formal training isn’t necessary. Studies could be conducted and previous research reviewed to find which is more feasible, especially in a small institution such as Bryn Mawr College. Should teaching assistants receive evaluations and feedback on their teaching? There is inherent conflict in changing roles. How can Bryn Mawr socialize teaching assistants into the role as practicing teachers? With the change in teacher and assistant roles, there may be a need for new and emerging pedagogies that foster cooperation, shared learning,, and empowerment of teachers and students.

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