Teaching Assistant Handbook
Compiled by Prof. Gary E. Ford, September 1999
Revised by Prof. Richard R. Spencer, July, 2000
Many of the responsibilities of a TA involve close interaction with students. In these interactions, the students will ultimately benefit if you are a teacher who recognizes that there is a great deal of diversity in the classroom and who affirms and validates that diversity with sensitivity and understanding. The policies and standards for these interactions are presented in this section. Additional information is available through the following links:
Possibly the most important aspect of the in-class teaching experience, and the one that will dictate the way you deal with problems, is the establishment of good rapport with the students. This is often easier for TAs to achieve than for professors because you are closer to your students in age and experience. You are still a student, you were recently an undergraduate, and you can better understand student concerns. As such you are often more of an "experienced peer" than an authority figure, thus making part of your job easier and part more difficult. In the first case, you can talk to students on a similar level, thus making communication more comfortable and productive, and keeping you more accessible. However, as a peer you may have difficulty maintaining direction and discipline. But in both cases, establishing a sense of rapport will help.
Rapport refers to the kind of interaction you have with your students. How friendly are you in class and out of class? What subjects are open for discussion? Do you treat your students as individuals, as adults? How would you like them to see you in your role as teacher? All of these questions and many more make up what we know as rapport. It is the relationship you establish with your students, whether that relationship is comfortable and open, or detached and distant. Generally, the more comfortable the atmosphere in the classroom, the better the learning; a cold or detached relationship tends to alienate students and become a barrier to learning.
In the final analysis, of course, this is all up to you. The important thing is to find a level of rapport that is comfortable and workable.
TAs are also expected to uphold an acceptable level of ethical conduct. You should encourage learning, hold before the students the best of scholarly standards, demonstrate respect for the students, and act appropriately in your role as a teacher. You must foster honesty, assure accuracy in evaluation, respect the confidential nature of the teacher/student relationship, avoid any exploitation of students, and protect their academic freedom. Types of unacceptable conduct include:
- Failure to meet the responsibilities of instruction regarding your appointment.
- Discrimination against a student on political grounds, or for reasons of race, religion, culture, sex, or any other arbitrary personal reason.
- Use of your position of power as a TA to coerce the judgment or conscience of a student or to cause harm to a student for any arbitrary or personal reason.
Students with Disabilities
The following are guidelines for accommodating students with disabilities, suggested by B. G. Davis in Tools for Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993).
- Ask your students to clarify any special needs.
- Remember that disabled students are students first, disabled second.
- Be sensitive to nonvisible disabilities.
- Understand that learning disabled students have average or above-average intelligence and may have perceptual deficits which hinder information processing and may need more time for exams.
- Check with the Disability Resource Center.
- Ensure classroom access.
- Observe seating needs.
- Ensure access to out-of-class activities.
- Follow good teaching practices.
- Be aware of cassette recorders--speak clearly.
- Face the class when you are speaking.
- Hand out written lists of technical terms.
- Make reading lists available in advance if possible.
- In conversation, directly address the student, not an aide or interpreter.
- Repeat questions as necessary.
- Listen attentively when a student with a speech disability is speaking.
- Do not interrupt.
- Make computer disks available to students if necessary.
- Provide appropriate test-taking conditions. (Consult your professor.)
- If necessary, select close captioned films and videos.
Ethnic, Gender, Cultural Diversity
Davis also provides guidelines for responding to ethnic, gender, and cultural diversity that should be considered by all TAs as well as instructors.
- Recognize any biases or stereotypes you may have absorbed.
- Treat each student as an individual with respect.
- Be sensitive to terminology.
- Become more informed about the history and culture of groups other than your own.
- Convey the same level of respect and confidence in the abilities of all your students.
- Don't try to protect any group of students.
- Be evenhanded in how you acknowledge students' good work.
- Recognize the complexity of diversity.
- Make it clear that you value all comments.
- Monitor your own behavior in responding to students.
- Speak up promptly if a student makes a distasteful remark, even jokingly.
- Avoid singling out students as spokespersons for groups.
- Be sensitive to students whose first language is not English.
- Assign group work and collaborative learning activities.
- Encourage all students to come to office hours.
- Provide opportunities for all students to get to know one another.
- Find a comfortable alternative to using generic masculine terms such as "he" and "man," as they tend to evoke masculine images, and render women invisible or peripheral.
- In asking questions during office hours or laboratory, call on men and women equally.
- Do not allow others to interrupt women more often than men.
- Respond equally to comments made by both men and women.
Most of the above are common-sense guidelines and are relevant to all good teaching. Similarly, dealing with diverse student learning styles and information processing strategies calls for using a variety of teaching styles and opportunities.
The University of California defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favor, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when:
- Submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term of condition of instruction, employment, or participation in any University activity.
- Submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as a basis for evaluation in making academic or personnel decisions affecting an individual. or
- Such conduct has the purpose or effect or unreasonably interfering with an individual's performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive university environment.
In determining whether conduct constitutes sexual harassment, consideration must be given to the totality of circumstances, including the nature and frequency of the conduct and the context in which the incidents occurred.
The University of California has developed a Faculty Code of Academic Conduct which applies equally to TAs. Faculty are to be held to the principle that "As teachers, professors . . . demonstrate respect for the student as an individual, and adhere to their proper role as intellectual guides and counselors... They avoid any exploitation of students for their private advantage..." Among the types of unacceptable faculty behavior is the "Use of the position of powers of a faculty member to coerce the judgment or conscience of a student or to cause harm to a student for arbitrary or personal reasons.
A resolution of the Academic Assembly of the University concludes, in part, that "a single and even mutually welcomed advance to a student by an instructor must be regarded by the academic community as a serious breach of professional ethics and proper standards of professional behavior." Although the resolution is limited to instructor relationships with current students, instructors should note that relationships initiated after the class or other academic role has ended may result in many of the same problems as would occur with current students. Instructors should be aware that relationships with students which appear to be consensual may, in fact be unwelcome. In addition, even in cases of truly consensual relationships, other students may feel that they are disadvantaged or otherwise negatively affected by an instructor/student relationship. These "third party" sexual harassment complaints are recognized in the law.
Instructors may be misusing their power if they:
- Make personal jokes or comments about students.
- Pressure a student to spend time with them outside the academic setting, including urging a student to get romantically and/or sexually involved.
- Ask a student personal questions which make the student uncomfortable.
- Touch a student when and where the student doesn't want to be touched. This could include hugging, grabbing, brushing against him or her, sitting or standing too close, and more.
- Ask a student for sexual favors in exchange for a better grades, recommendation or other academic benefit.
If you encounter a problem or situation that could be interpreted as sexual harassment, you should inform the instructor of the course or the Vice Chair for Undergraduate Studies or call 2-2255 to consult with the campus Sexual Harassment Education Program.
Disclosure of Student Information
Campus policy and procedure (UCD Policy and Procedure Manual Section 320-21) regarding privacy of and access to information contained in student records is guided legally by the Federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and when the law is silent, it is guided by two principles: (1) the privacy of an individual is of great weight, and (2) the information in a student's file should be disclosed to the student on request.
With regard to the disclosure of grades, graded papers, or examinations, the following procedures may be followed without signed consent of the student involved:
- Grades may be posted using an identifier known only to the instructor and the student (an exam number or the last 6 digits of the student's ID number).
- Papers may be distributed in class, folded or arranged so that the grade or score is not readily visible.
- Students may be requested (not required) to provide stamped self-addressed postcards for grades.
- The student's individual grade may be distributed to the student's individual email account.
All other procedures for posting grades or distributing examinations require the use of a consent form. Responsibility for preparing the consent form rests with the instructor of the course.
UC Davis has an Academic Code of Conduct. This means that students are to police themselves and to officially report any instances of academic dishonesty to the Office of Student Judicial Affairs and the Campus Judicial Board. Penalties can range from a written letter placed in the student's file to complete expulsion from the university.
Most instructors take certain precautions to limit dishonesty, especially with respect to examinations. You should discuss this issue with the instructor in charge of the course for which you are a TA. You have the responsibility to inform the faculty in charge of any instances of academic dishonesty that you become aware of.
Challenge to Authority
Often when a disruption occurs in class you must decide whether to deal with it immediately or defer it to office hours. There are no hard and fast rules in this situation, and often you have only a split-second to decide. This is where your knowledge of the class and your plans for the section come in handy. If the issue in question is clear-cut and can be dealt with immediately, then by all means do so. However, problems often arise that must be taken out of the classroom to office hours.
The most difficult situation to deal with is a challenge of authority; as when a student is making demands or trying to intimidate you in front of the class. In such a situation, someone will have to lose, but you cannot afford to lose and neither can the student. When one-to-one conflicts occur, they can easily expand to fill the silence which ensues, thus growing to a size which is unmanageable. The key is to defuse such situations by taking them outside the classroom. A simple phrase like "Let's deal with this in office hours" or "I don't think we need to take up class time for this, lets talk about it afterwards" can serve to relieve the tension of the situation and defer it to a more productive and less threatening forum. This also lets the student in question know that the issue will be dealt with at a specific time, thus saving egos on both sides.
Knowing when to defer and when to deal with a situation comes only with time and experience. In general, the rule of thumb is to defer all major conflicts and antagonisms, and deal in class with simple disruptions. In the case of more difficult problems, such as academic dishonesty, it is vital to let the class know how you intend to deal with the situation before it arises. Be consistent, then deal with the actual incident outside of class. This will retain your authority, strengthen your contract with the students, and allow you to deal with the problem on a one-to-one basis.