So you're in grad school and you have more than enough to do. Like, if it weren't for class time, you'd never get any sleep, right? Just kidding. We know what a diligent and attentive student you are. Otherwise, you wouldn't even contemplate becoming a Teacher's Assistant.
But you're here so you must be thinking about it (though I assume some percentage of you arrived here under the mistaken impression that TA stands for “Taxidermy's Assistant,” in which case, you're free to go now.) For those of you who arrived here intentionally, we have good news. Being a TA is an awesome opportunity and you have much to gain from the experience.
Now, we're not going to sugarcoat it. Being a TA isn't always the easiest thing in the world. Taking on all that new responsibility is no easy feat, what with your already-heavy course load, your demanding study schedule, your action-packed social life and the fact that you're only halfway through binge-watching Breaking Bad and you'd really like to get caught up before somebody spoils the ending for you.
Not only that, but being a TA comes with all kinds of inherent challenges, from achieving authority in a specific subject area to effectively exhibiting this authority before a room of inquiring students. Considering that these students are your classmates, and you will likely see some of them in a social context, you don't want to make a fool out of yourself. Before you leap in, you should be sure you're up to the task.
If you are concerned about the drawbacks, check out our piece on why It Sucks to Be a TA. But if you've already considered the cons, now take a look at the pros.
1. Build Mad Skills
Sorry for slipping back into pre-Millennial slang, but it's true. You will build mad skills as a TA. This may well be your first time providing instruction and assistance to a group of students. If this is the case, you're about to get all kinds of on-the-job training. In order to be effective as a TA, you'll need to bone up on your communication skills. You'll want to express yourself clearly, demonstrate authority effectively, listen intently, and foster positive interaction between your students. This also requires a set of management skills that you may be tapping into for the very first time. From assigning tasks and leading discussions to enforcing deadlines and doling out evaluations, you are in a position of leadership. Use it wisely. Beyond that, you'll refine your instructional skills, time-management faculties, and your threshold for the most annoying of your students. All of these are qualities that will be invaluable when you graduate and arrive at a professional destination.
2. Become Best Buds With Your Professor
Ok. Maybe not best buds. I mean, I wouldn't show up for Thanksgiving dinner unannounced or anything. But if you do a good job, you can probably count on your professor for a glowing letter of recommendation or personal reference. As a TA, you may be able to nurture a mentor/mentee relationship with your professor. This intimacy could be a path to even greater instruction in your field of study, to future professional opportunities, or, at the very least, may give you personal access to a great mind. You don't even have to limit this interaction to just your professor. As a TA, you've expressed a higher level of interest in both your discipline and in the instruction of said discipline. This interest may help you to form a more collegial relationship with any number of other professors in your department or on your campus. Seek advice, engage in discourse, and make yourself a part of your school's pedagogical community.
3. Win Friends and Influence Classmates
Being a TA isn't a popularity contest. On the other hand, it's nice to be liked. As a TA, you will have the opportunity to meet and directly interact with so many more of your fellow students. College campuses are often big, diverse places brimming with opportunities for engagement, but it doesn't mean you'll always know where to look. As a TA, you'll have an inbuilt opportunity to meet, befriend, and collaborate with your fellow students. Remember, you will likely only preside over a class of students for one semester. After that, you'll just be classmates again. As a TA, you'll get to know more of your classmates and more of your classmates will get to know you. This could be a great way to grow your on-campus social circle…provided you aren't a huge jerk as a TA (which we don't recommend).
4. Take a Crash Course
Usually, you will oversee an introductory-level class in a discipline where you've already made significant personal progress. Though the material should be familiar, this will be your opportunity for a valuable refresher on the basics. In fact, you'll almost certainly dig deeper than you ever did in your first go-round. That's because it isn't enough to simply learn the material that you'll be teaching. You'll need to understand the subject on a more critical and subtextual level. Your understanding should be strong enough that you can answer questions, think on your feet, and employ an array of methods to help a diverse group of students comprehend the material in question. At the end of the experience, you will come away with a more comprehensive and dynamic knowledge of your own subject matter.
5. Earn Personal Gratification
Y'know, if you're into that sort of thing. If you do your job well, you will be a valuable resource to other students. The professor simply doesn't have time to help every student with every problem, question, or obstacle. That's why you were hired. You're like a medic on the frontline of the battlefield. Students in need will seek out your services before they go looking for the general. If you are the type to get a warm, squishy feeling inside every time you help somebody, being a TA could be a very rewarding experience. If you do your job well, you could be the difference-maker for a person struggling to understand a concept, pass a class, or complete a course of study.
6. Play To the Crowd
According to the Washington Post, glossophobia, or the fear of public speaking, is the single most common fear in America. With more than 25% of survey respondents citing it as their top fear, public speaking is more dreaded than heights, needles, drowning or clowning. If public speaking is something that sends a mild shudder through your body, being a TA could really help you face and conquer your fear. The college classroom is a comfortable and accepting environment in which to sharpen your public speaking chops. One day, when you speak before a lecture hall or present a bunch of ideas to a boardroom using colorful flow-charts, you'll think back to that first day as a TA and you'll thank us. (Send thank you notes care of TBS Magazine).
7. Get a Shot at the Big Leagues
Being a TA is kind of like being a minor league ball player. You may or may not proceed to the majors, but you're already getting an experience that most people don't ever get to have. You're getting a "cup of coffee" in the big leagues, as they say. Consider yourself lucky. Not everybody gets to have this experience. Some educators work their whole lives without ever teaching at the college level. But you are special. You get to do it while still working through your own education. This is a unique arrangement that gives you keen insight into the types of instructional methods that work and those that don't. It may or may not be your ambition to work in education, but this experience will ensure that the option is always in your back pocket.
8. Get Together (Come On People Now...)
It's easy to feel a sense of isolation when you're buried under personal deadlines and facing a stack of dreadful student assignments in need of grading. But you aren't alone. There are other TAs out there who are experiencing the same frustrations. You are now part of a very exclusive club. Use it to network, to find support among others weathering the same experience, to collaborate on academic problems, and perhaps even to sit with a colleague over a cup of coffee making big, bold plans for the future.
9. Attain Wisdom
I know, I know. There's no more tired cliche than the idea that as an educator, you will learn as much from your students as they do from you. I'm sure plenty of world-weary educators with serious grievances about the quality of their students might beg to differ. But as a TA, you will be in a unique position to probe your fellow students for ideas. If the subject allows it, encourage discussion, debate and the logical defense of ideas among your students. The more you interact with your students, the keener your understanding of your chosen discipline will become. Ultimately, this process will challenge your assumptions and demand that you achieve a deeper level of knowledge in your course of study. So yeah, queue the old Hallmark Card cliche. You will learn a ton from your students if you remain open to the possibility.
So if you are considering taking this step, be assured that it will be a lot of work and that you will probably spend some portion of time wishing desperately for a good night's sleep. But the good news is that you're young, you're energetic, and you have ready access to caffeinated beverages. Whatever the drawbacks, the benefits of becoming a TA are considerable.
If you are already working as a TA, or have done so in the past, we'd love to hear about your experiences. Was it worth the extra work?