Tips for a positive start to your school year as a teaching assistant or new faculty member

This was day one of the orientation for the new teaching assistants at the University of Florida. Photo by Julie Dodd

More than 350 graduate students will be new teaching assistants at the University of Florida. A ballroom full of them. I enjoy being one of the faculty members to be part of their three-day orientation, sponsored by the UF Graduate School and the Teaching Center. Dr. Ken Gerhardt and Dr. Winifred Cooke do a good job of planning the workshop — trying to cover a wide range of teaching issues without overwhelming the new teaching assistants.

My topic was “A Positive Start to Your Teaching: Your Syllabus and Your First Week of Classes.” Here are some of the tips I shared with the teaching assistants, which also work for new faculty members.

1. Learn about the course you are to teach and how it fits into the curriculum.

Having a context about the course can be very helpful for you as a teacher. You will know what previous courses students have taken and how you are to prepare students for the next courses in the sequence. Many teaching assistants are teaching general education courses, those courses that help students be more well-rounded. So this can be the last course in that area (such as English or biology) that the students will be taking during their undergraduate studies. What do you want them to leave the course knowing about the field?

Is the course required or an elective? How many students are in the course?

Talk to your faculty supervisor to learn about the course. Review the online course catalog to read course descriptions of your course and the others in the curriculum.

2. Learn about the students in the course.

A profile of the university’s student population should be on the university website. You also can talk with faculty members and experienced teaching assistants about the students in your program or course. You can learn about the diversity of the student body, whether students are “traditional” (18-24 years old) or non-traditional, what their reasons are for taking the course, etc. This is the start of a process that you will continue throughout the course — understanding student motivation, learning student names and learning about individual student performance and career goals.

3. Review the materials for your course.

Obtain copies of the course materials, including textbooks and syllabi. Determine what online materials are being used. Most colleges now include some online component, such as a course management system (CMS) that is used for posting grades and the course syllabus.

Most TAs do not have the responsibility for developing the course syllabus. The course supervisor has that duty. But for those who have to develop the syllabus, having those course materials is essential for planning — mapping out the course in conjunction with course readings.

4. Figure out the logistics before the start of the semester.

Just getting to campus can be a challenge at the beginning of the school year. Those nearly empty commuter lots will be filled when classes start.

Find your classroom and try it out — use the computer and video projection unit and write on the chalkboard/whiteboard. Go to the back of the room and check on the size of your font and writing.

And if you’re feeling a little nervous about the start of school, that’s OK and can be good. Remember that most of your students are nervous and excited about the beginning of the school year, too.

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