Teaching assistantships serve an important role in higher education. They provide support to faculty, facilitate the learning experience of undergraduate students, and offer a training ground for the next generation of university instructors. Despite the centrality of this role to the graduate student experience, its potential for contributing to teaching and pedagogical skills development is underrealized.
Tapping into this potential will enrich graduate education and enhance excellence in undergraduate teaching. We suggest that one way to do this is by centering mentorship between teaching assistants (TAs) and instructors. In what follows, we provide tips on how to cultivate a mentoring relationship and reflect on the institutional support needed for this relationship to thrive.
Mentoring teaching assistants
Mentorship requires strong, consistent, and student-centered communication. Consider having regular meetings with your TAs to talk about their challenges, successes, and overall experiences in their role. Simply offering students a supportive space to debrief about their experiences can encourage self-reflection, professional growth, and more intentionality in the classroom. Don’t forget to provide suggestions about how they can improve based on your own experiences.
In these meetings, make time to understand students’ broader professional goals. Not all graduate students want traditional academic jobs. They need to know that this is okay, and that teaching offers them the opportunity to develop many transferable skills that will be important to their future careers. Also, many graduate students have access to free teaching skills workshops but are expected to complete them on their own time. You can make a powerful statement by allowing your TAs to use their contractual time toward developing the skills they need to do their job well.
Offer opportunities to collaborate
Who says you need to limit the role of the TA to observer, reader, and grader? Graduate students can meaningfully contribute to course design, lesson planning, curriculum development, and even team teaching. Collaboration has benefits for graduate students, instructors, and the entire university community. You might even find that collaborating with your TA improves the quality of your course.
Offering opportunities for graduate TAs to practice these skills in advance of becoming principal instructors can drastically improve their preparedness, thereby enhancing excellence in undergraduate teaching. It is a form of empowerment for graduate students that can enhance their confidence, as well as give them a sense of pride and ownership over their work as TAs.
All of us have a responsibility to advance equity, diversity, inclusion, and decolonization in higher education. We know that mentorship contributes to successful career progression for marginalized students who face unique barriers.
Educate yourself about the challenges to diversity and inclusion facing higher education. Challenge your assumptions and unconscious biases. Tailor your mentorship approach to provide valuable experiences for these students. Demonstrating a commitment to equity and inclusion may help create a space where students will be willing to talk to you about the systemic barriers and inequalities they are experiencing.
Creating meaningful mentoring relationships between instructors and TAs requires administrative encouragement and support. There are many formal and informal steps that can be taken to promote mentorship.
One idea is to allocate hours for professional development in the contracts of both instructors and TAs. In many occupations, professional development hours are offered to employees. This not only allows them to learn the role, but improves their ongoing performance by refining their knowledge and skills.
We also believe that instructors who cultivate meaningful mentoring relationships with their TAs should be recognized in a more formal way. This could be done through awards and honorariums. It could also be considered as part of faculty performance evaluations.
Policies that clearly outline the intent of the role are also needed. This can help to create a mutually understood set of expectations and promote consistent experiences in this area of graduate education.
Seemingly small decisions can make a huge difference in the graduate student experience. Mentoring relationships can be given room to grow through something as simple as pairing graduate students with the same instructor over multiple semesters.
Routine roundtables on teaching and pedagogy can provide faculty and graduate students opportunities to learn, collaborate, and gain event organizing experience. Similarly, brown bag lunches that encourage casual discussion can keep existing department conversations going, create new ones, and sustain a community of teaching practice.
Lastly, a “thank-you” can go a long way. Verbal recognition for instructors who are mentoring graduate TAs can send the message that their work is seen and appreciated.
At a time when universities are faced with unprecedented fiscal challenges, simply reimagining existing roles, relationships, and everyday practices can go a long way toward enhancing the quality of postsecondary education.
Meagan Auer and Elise Sammons are PhD candidates in the department of political science at the University of Alberta. Dax D’Orazio is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of political studies at Queen’s University and a research affiliate with the Centre for Constitutional Studies at U of A.