Being a Teaching Assistant
The CTL offers a wide variety of programming for teaching assistants and graduate students. For a complete list of our TA programming, please:
The resources below are intended specifically for Teaching Assistants (TAs), as valuable members of the university teaching team. Whether you are a marking TA, holding office hours, running a lab or tutorial or are in charge of facilitating discussions or giving lectures, you hold an important and unique position as both a student and teacher. This page is designed to provide resources at every step of the TA process – before starting a TAship, during the semester and at the close of the semester.
Are you feeling nervous or anxious about starting your Teaching Assistant position? Are you feeling confident, but want some additional resources and input to make this term even better? The following resources will help you prepare for your TA role, plan out your semester, and make the most of your first class.
Before the Semester...
- Register and participate in introductory training programs for TAs like TA Day and TATP
- Review the 5 Conversations to Have with Your Course Instructor Before the Beginning of the Semester (pdf)
- Work with your course supervisor to complete a Duties Specification Letter
- Check out the resources on the Teaching Assistant Union (PSAC Local 610) website
First of all, know you are not alone! First day nerves are not only normal but can be a good thing: it means that you care. It is perfectly normal to be nervous in front of a group. Here are a few tips that you may find useful to help overcome pre-lecture jitters (adapted from Toastmasters International):
- Know the room. Be familiar with the place in which you will speak. Arrive early, walk around the speaking area and practice using the microphone and any visual aids.
- Know the audience. Greet some of the audience as they arrive. It's easier to speak to a group of friends than to a group of strangers.
- Know your material. If you're not familiar with your material or are uncomfortable with it, your nervousness will increase. Practice your speech and revise it if necessary.
- Relax. Ease tension by doing exercises.
- Visualize yourself giving your speech. Imagine yourself speaking, your voice loud, clear, and assured. When you visualize yourself as successful, you will be successful.
- Realize that people want you to succeed. Audiences want you to be interesting, stimulating, informative, and entertaining. They don't want you to fail.
- Don't apologize. If you mention your nervousness or apologize for any problems you think you have with your lecture/lesson, you may be calling the audience's attention to something they hadn't noticed. Keep silent.
- Concentrate on the message -- not the medium. Focus your attention away from your own anxieties, and outwardly toward your message and your audience. Your nervousness will dissipate.
- Turn nervousness into positive energy. Harness your nervous energy and transform it into vitality and enthusiasm.
- Gain experience. Experience builds confidence, which is the key to effective speaking.
- Stanford’s guide on 7 Ways to Handle Nervousness
Your first class is your opportunity to introduce yourself to your students, build community among your students and introduce the course and classroom guidelines. Explore the resources listed below for planning out a great first day.
- Have a cell phone (set to silent) with you at all times
- Have list of relevant emergency contacts (Classroom Technology Group, your department's Undergraduate Assistant, and Campus Police).
- Western non-emergency contact list to help you direct students (i.e., Learning Skills, the Writing Support Centre)
- Build a community with other TAs:
Make sure you have all necessary certification. For example, all employees (including graduate Teaching Assistants) must have at the least:
- Basic WHMIS
- Health and Safety
- Safe Campus Community certifications.
Your specific role in labs may require additional certificates: please visit Western Human Resources to learn more.
A survey of Western University TAs revealed that 100% of TAs will mark at some point in their university careers. Marking can be daunting but preparation and endurance can get you through.
TAing a laboratory course whether in the sciences, engineering, mathematics, computer sciences or even social sciences can be a challenging and rewarding teaching experience. Lab TAs primary responsibilities are in laboratories, providing pre-lab talks and assisting students in-lab with experiments or assignments.
- Getting set up and started as a lab TA (University of Michigan)
Teaching Tutorials/Leading Discussions:
As a TA in any number of faculties you may find yourself in the role of a tutorial or discussion facilitator. Tutorials are often assignment driven and are an opportunity for students to ask questions and attempt problems they were not able to in larger lecture sections. Discussion classes are usually associated with arts and humanities, social sciences and education lecture courses with heavy reading. Discussion classes are also an opportunity for students to ask questions and discuss both about lecture topics and course readings.
- Discussion-Based Teaching and Handling Controversial Topics in the Classroom (University of Michigan)
Proctoring Tests and Exams
- Make sure you are aware of your role as a proctor and the rules for your students: Western’s Exam Policies
- Western Student Guide for Accommodated Exams
- Active Learning Ideas
- TAing a diverse classroom/intercultural communication
- Take a course that addresses intercultural communication such as: TATP, TCC, CCC
- Communication Strategies for International Graduate Students (e-manual)
- Michigan State Best Practices for Classroom management (pdf)
General Skills to Teach Undergrad Students
- Writing Support Handouts - explanations and examples of university appropriate English language grammar and style from the Writing Support Centre
- Skill Building Handouts - information and tools for student success on academic skills, time management strategies, memory & thinking skills, and exams.
- Multi-faith calendar
- Student Development Centre: writing support, psychological services, students with disabilities, IESC, learning skills, Indigenous services
- Learning Skills Services: resources and support for learning
You made it through the semester – now is the opportunity to reflect on your experience, identify the skills you have gained and incorporate evaluations, letters from instructors and your successes into your teaching dossier and future teaching work. These resources will help make the most of your Teaching Assistant experience in terms of self-reflection, building your teaching dossier and handling student evaluations productively.
Official or unofficial student evaluations can provide constructive feedback to help you grow as a teacher. It is within your Union contract to receive feedback on your TAing. You can check whether your department will ask students for feedback with the official professor/course evaluation. If not administered by the department, ask your course instruct if you can give out TA evaluations. Make sure to give your course instructor notice and consider the best date to handout the evaluations (i.e., not on a test day)
- Getting Feedback on your Teaching
- Survey Monkey sample for an online TA evaluation
- Dealing with “negative” evaluations:
- Ask for course instructor if they would write you a letter for your teaching dossier.
- If your course instructor is willing to write you a letter, compile student feedback and provide a list of specific duties you performed in the class. Your instructor can use this information to write a personalized letter of reference for your teaching dossier.
- A teaching journal allows you to reflect on the course and your role and is an excellent resource to return to year after year. Think about: what worked in a course? What were great teaching examples? What would you do differently? Also keep note of your specific contribution to the course.
- Create a Smile File: a physical or digital folder where you keep outstanding feedback, thank you notes from students and other evidence of your excellence as a teacher!
- Submit successful teaching strategy to Great Ideas in Teaching, our annual teaching assistant award competition
- Register for advanced program such as ATP or SGPS 9500
- Register for the Teaching Mentor Program
- Remind course instructor to tell students about TA Awards
You can begin building your Teaching Philosophy Statement by reflecting on your teaching pedagogy and using concrete examples from your TA teaching experience.
- Guidelines for preparing a Teaching Dossier
- Tips on writing Teaching Philosophy Statements
- Watch for our annual workshops on Writing a Teaching Philosophy Statement and Building a Teaching Dossier through our Future Prof Series
- Think about all the activities and roles you completed as a TA (e.g. were you on time for office hours? Did you give written feedback on assignments? Did you ask questions of students to help guide them in labs?) and relate these to your teaching philosophy.This will give you some concrete teaching strategies you can draw on for your teaching philosophy even if you haven’t taught a class.
Keep a folder of syllabi for courses in which you have been a Teaching Assistant. You can include these in the appendix of your Teaching Dossier. These documents are also a great resource to reference when you start to design your own course outlines. Consider annotating your copies of the syllabi by taking notes on your classroom activities, taking photos of classroom activities, and keeping copies of great student work (with persmissison, of course).
- Give a guest lecture: Ask the course instructor if you can give a guest lecture for the course. This experience is valuable for professional development as an educator and can be documented in your Teaching Dossier.
- Assist in Assessment Design: Ask the course instructor if you can contribute test questions or assignment ideas. This is a great teaching experience and can also be documented in your Teaching Dossier.
- Request Feedback: Ask the course instructor or a colleague to sit in on your tutorial/lab/guest lecture and provide you with written and verbal feedback. If you are interested in additional colleague feedback, sign-up for the Teaching Mentor Program to receive further verbal and written feedback on your teaching.