I recall being a first-year student quite well. It was an exciting, if not a little nerve-wracking, time. The adjustment from high school to university forces you to switch gears entirely. My time was consumed by schedules. Attending lectures and tutorials, job interviews, and coffee with friends became squeezed in between sleep, eating, and working. At the end of the year the big question came around: what is my major? It wasn’t so obvious at first, even though I adored literature. There were so many choices and potentials. My first year experience can be summed up in one word: hellish (Editor’s Note: but, eventually, rewarding!).
So, when I stepped into my first year TA class, I was overtaken by similar feelings of, erm, dread. My nerves were shackled by sympathy for the first years. Did they feel the same way as I did on first day. They looked it: excited, yet somewhat worn out from the excitement. The classroom ambiance was tense and most students shyly responded to any question I had scribbled down for a quick introductory discussion. Let’s just put it this way: by the end of the first twenty minutes, a sinking feeling ensued. Then we began to discuss the work that had been assigned.
Surprise, surprise. The rest of the class went awesome. The tension diffused and some intellectual discussion was mixed with lightly sarcastic humour. So far, I’ve gathered a few cues on how to TA successfully.
Never the following: “Who did the readings?” Just don’t. Proceed if they have.
Make jokes, even if only a couple of students laugh. Nothing is worse than a dry, completely serious, lecture
On a similar note, don’t lecture. Speak about the work, but don’t get on the soapbox. Let students have a voice.
Never be over-zealous about any material in class. It scares the students. For literature classes, avoid dressing up like the characters in works studied:
Be aware of all different learners. Some people learn alone best, some in groups. Some learn while they write, others when they speak. We all require the time and space to learn our way. Within the time frame of a lesson, allot time for different learning styles.
Be aware they are in a first (or second) year class. You’ve done this before, they have not. Things that seem easy to you may be difficult or new to them. Accept that.
Don’t force anyone to speak. Avoid creating more awkward moments.
Utilize space effectively. Roundtable discussions can be very effective and help students prep for later years. Instead of seeing each other as students, they see each other as peers or colleagues – at least in the class.
Do not do this:
Give breaks. When the room becomes overheated, in both a literal and figurative sense, take ten.
Related to above: recognize the following emotions in students:
pain, whether physical or psychological
bordom (symptoms: hunched disposition, sleepy eyes, staring without blinking)
hyperness (take ten)
complete and utter confusion
anger (take ten)
As a student, you probably recall being the above at some point. So, be considerate and expect the same.
Yeah, a last one: expect respect. This isn’t high school, so, class is not mandatory. Expect students to pull there weight as you do. Expect them to listen, comment, and think as critically as possible. Their is satisfaction that comes with hearing a class discussion take right off. First and Second year students are often underestimated, but they can be very engaging and critical. Sometimes, even more so than you. Key thing is to watch out for this and fuel their fire.