Teaching assistants (TAs) are the cogs in the university machine. They help professors with undergraduate courses by grading papers, leading discussion sections, and sometimes teaching classes on their own.
Benefits of becoming a TA
Many graduate programs (and almost all PhD programs) require you to serve as a teaching assistant for one or several years of your education. Even if this is not a requirement of your program, there are two reasons you should consider being a TA. First, it helps you pay for your education; TAs are awarded either a stipend or a tuition discount. Second, it provides you with university-level teaching experience. This is a great resume booster for any field, and particularly valuable for students who hope to become professors.
Is a Teaching Assistantship right for you?
If you'd like to be a TA, it's important to find out as much as you can about the assistantship programs at your prospective schools. Be sure to ask what your roles and responsibilities as a TA would be. At some universities, assistants are just that; they grade papers or oversee quiz sessions. At other schools, a TA might be expected to teach two classes per term. While first-year TAs are generally provided with a basic curriculum and syllabus, they still spend a lot of time preparing lesson plans, doing background reading, grading tests and meeting with students. All this can be overwhelming when you're trying to keep up with studies of your own.
How to Book the TA Gig
Don't just assume you'll be able to snag a TA position; some schools only have a handful of spots, while others have none. Additionally, not all assistantships are created equal. The amount of time required can differ, as can compensation. Some TAs might get to forego tuition payments, while others receive only a modest grant.
Most schools include an application form for assistantships in their general application packet. You may need a letter of recommendation and/or a short essay (separate from those required for the grad school application itself) that explains your qualifications and what subject you want to teach. Volunteer experience as an instructor or tutor can help you land a position, as can real-life experience in your field of study.
A teaching assistantship may be a great way to gain experience and save money, but it's not for everyone. Are you excited (or at least willing) to stand in front of a class of jittery first-years to earn your keep, or would the pressures of teaching detract from your own coursework? Only you can make that decision—so go into it with as much information as you can!
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The English Department has conceived a three-stage process to prepare teaching assistants as classroom teachers of English composition. The first stage covers the teaching assistant's first semester as a full-time student (registered for 9 hours of coursework per semester), the second stage the second semester, and the third stage the second year. This process assumes little if any classroom experience in the teaching of English composition
At the start of the fall semester, all new teaching assistants attend an Orientation Session at the University Learning Center (first floor, DePaulo Hall). This orientation provides all the basic policy and procedural information teaching assistants will need to successfully work as writing tutors during the upcoming academic year. Additionally, new teaching assistants will have the opportunity to talk with experienced writing tutors about working at the University Learning Center (ULC). For more information about Writing Services at ULC, visit the website (www.uncw.edu/ulc)
Teaching assistants working as writing tutors in the ULC work three or more hours per week. Each teaching assistant will work a set schedule, which will be created after the orientation session; the schedule starts the first class day after the Labor Day holiday. Teaching assistants will spend the first two weeks doing participant-observation with experienced tutors. After this first two weeks, the teaching assistants will begin tutoring on their own. Teaching assistants will tutor during Final Exam week.
During the semester, Writing Services and the ULC offer several tutor-training opportunities, including various workshops, peer observations, and reflective writing opportunities. Teaching assistants are not required to participate in most of these training opportunities. However, any tutor wishing to receive certification through the College Reading and Learning Association must engage in the full tutor-training program. Details about certification will be provided during your orientation session.
Tutoring in writing is an exciting, challenging, and ultimately rewarding experience. For teaching assistants, tutoring in writing at the ULC serves as a valuable pre-service teaching experience. Additionally, tutoring itself is powerful teaching tool that is useful for future educators in working with students in and out of the classroom or in other tutoring centers. Please direct questions about Writing Services at the ULC, to Will Wilkinson, Associate Director and Writing Services Coordinator (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Another aspect of the first semester is the teaching assistant's interactions with an English Department Faculty mentor, which is assigned by the Composition Coordinator. Students are notified of their faculty mentor during the Writing Center Services Orientation held every fall.
- The teaching assistant will observe the mentor's English 101 class 2-3 times weekly. The assistant will meet with the mentor to discuss the teaching of composition. During the second half of the first semester, teaching assistants may begin to help the mentor's students during small group assignments or peer editing, putting to use skills learned from Writing Center Services. Mentors should begin illustrating samples of graded student essays, explaining how to grade both fairly and accurately. Mentors may allow assistants to grade only a few essays and then go over the grading in consultation with each other.
- The assistant is required to keep a journal of their experiences with the mentor and the class they are observing that illustrate some of the special teaching moments the assistant encountered.
- At the end of the first semester, mentors will write a brief evaluation of the assistant's classroom performance and journal during the semester. All reports are submitted to the Composition Coordinator.
- Teaching assistants may also be asked to write evaluations of their mentors
In the second semester of this preparation for teaching, teaching assistants will continue to be consultants for Writing Center Services for three hours per week and continue to keep a journal of their experiences there. All teaching assistants are required to register for ENG 503: Theory and Practice of Teaching Composition during this semester. Failure to take this course may make the teaching assistant ineligible to teach for the Department of English at UNCW.
- Each assistant will be assigned a different mentor from the previous semester and will continue to observe a mentor's ENG 201 class 2-3 times weekly to discuss the nature of the course and the various pedagogies involved.
- After consultations with the mentor and when the mentor feels the assistant is ready, each assistant should plan and teach some of the mentor's classes, perhaps an entire unit, with the mentor in attendance.
- Under no circumstances should an assistant be expected to teach an entire course at this time.
- Mentors will observe the teaching assistant's performance and write an end- of- term evaluation answering these questions: Was the assistant's lesson well-planned and organized? Were objectives clearly stated (what were they)? Did the assistant meet those objectives? Was the lesson stimulating and did it actively involve writing and the students? Was the assistant comfortable in front of the class?-describe his/her presence in the classroom. What pedagogy or pedagogies did the assistant employ to teach the lesson? All reports are submitted to the Composition Coordinator. Once reports are received, the Composition Coordinator will meet with each First-year student to discuss his/her progress as a teaching assistant in our Composition program noting where the assistant should improve (if applicable).
- Assistants will also be more involved with the grading of student essays, something for which the assistant should be moderately prepared at this point. The mentor should discuss grading and classroom policies in detail. Importantly, the mentor should be clear about how to grade student essays and methods of evaluation guiding the assistant into developing their own grading scale, syllabus, and course policies in preparation for teaching ENG 101.
Working with program coordinators
Finally, during their first year, assistants may be assigned to work with one of the program coordinators to assist with tasks directly related to curricular issues in order to support the department's teaching mission. The specific tasks will be determined by the coordinator, taking into consideration the unique skills offered by each assistant.
At this stage, students must have completed 18 hours of graduate coursework in English, worked for Writing Services (3 hours first semester and 3 hours second semester), observed a mentor for 2 semesters (ENG 101 and ENG 201), and taken ENG 503. All assistants should have favorable reports from the Director of Writing Services, mentors, and the Composition Coordinator. Failure to have completed the above requirements may make the teaching assistant ineligible to continue teaching for UNCW, holding their assistantship, and/or continue their progress toward the degree. If all requirements are complete at this time, the assistant typically moves into the second stage of teacher preparation.
- Typically, students will be assigned to teach to first-year writing courses (ENG 101 or ENG 201), for which they will have full responsibility, including: choosing from 3 available textbooks, grading, planning, and supervising approximately 50 students. Assistants are treated like faculty in that they are expected to complete any and all paperwork requested by department administrative staff, university officials, and/or the general college. They are also expected to attend relevant meetings.
- Assistants in the second year and who are teaching ENG 101 and/or ENG 201 are required to attend weekly meetings with the Composition Coordinator and required to attend other composition program meetings and/or Center for Teaching Excellence workshops when appropriate and available.
All administrators also know that typically assistants should be writing a thesis for a spring semester defense. Teaching assistants who experience difficulty with time-management or other course related issues should communicate with and seek help from their chairs and from the Composition Coordinator right away. They are required to report any significant problems in the classes your teaching to the Composition Coordinator immediately.
Finally, The English Department Chair, Graduate Coordinator, and the Composition Coordinator will determine at the end of each academic year whether a teaching assistant's performance of duties as well as academic performance merit the continuation of their assistantship. If the teaching assistant's performance is satisfactory and if stipends (monies) remain available, the assistant will hold their assistantship for 4 semesters.