My Experiences as a Teaching Assistant – the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly!

I have continually ignored advice from my supervisor to reduce the amount of TAing I do as I felt it would limit the scope of my experiences in graduate school. While I can’t claim to say this often … I was right! The time expenditure has been well worth the experiences gained as I have had the privilege of teaching over one thousand students across numerous semesters. From the discussion that follows, it will become apparent that my view of TAing is positive, though I will also share some frustrations I have experienced in fulfilling my duties. Some TAs like to complain about students and I am not the exception, but it is important to remember that the university is built for the students; the students are the university’s raison d’être.

Why TA?

In brief, any student who does not have scholarship funding is paid as a Research Assistant (RA) from their supervisor’s grant(s) (normally 1-2 semesters each year). They usually TA in the other semesters as a means to support themselves. In selecting TAs, priority is given to current graduate students followed by graduate students from other departments, the lowest priority is given to undergrads. Even so, departments often have a hard time filling every position with willing and qualified TAs. Professors can ask for specific TAs, therefore familiarity with the instructor is often beneficial.

Let’s talk money!

Salary depends on the work load, the number of students in the class, and ultimately the designated number of base units. However, the pay is further modified by the status of the graduate student (Master’s students make less than PhD students) as well as the supplemented “scholarship” amount (see this guide for details). Even the higher paying positions (~$700-900 biweekly) are insufficient to support an individual living in greater Vancouver in 2018. This is especially true when factoring in that ~20% of a students pay will go towards tuition and school related expenses. If the TA has experience with the course and spends less than the allocated time on preparation, they may be making a relatively high hourly rate. Yet, this is offset that by the fact that they are not getting paid to simultaneously carry out research towards completing their thesis project; work that takes up the majority of their time.

What comes next is a discussion of the myriad fineries associated with my experiences as a TA.

The Good:

Skills Gained:
As a TA, I meet and interact with people I would not otherwise have a chance to know. This provides me with insight regarding the behaviours and thought processes of individuals beyond my acquaintances. Moreover, these interactions strengthen extroversion and communication skills that are qualities I do not naturally possess.

Student-Induced Motivation:
The increasing interconnectedness of the world and abundance of resources available to students have made the higher echelons of the student body better accomplished than ever before. Engaging with these motivated, bright, and well rounded students is inspiring and can drive the TA to work harder as well.

Enforced Learning:
Teaching allows one to explore creative avenues thus strengthening such tendencies. The TA also needs to have a strong grasp of the content and learn continuously in order to respond to questions beyond the scope of the course.

The Bad:

Lack of Transparency:
TAing is time consuming. Given the efforts of the TSSU, the compensation associated with the position is fair. However, the salary of graduate students whether from TAing or for research in the lab is far from sufficient for the high and rising cost of living in Vancouver. Moreover, while the rules regarding the number of base units and selection of applicants for positions are clear, the application is at times marred by a lack of transparency. In the past, base units were indicated on the departmental website, allowing candidates to select courses which fit their needs, both in terms of pay and time requirements. In my department, this is no longer the case. The list of selected TAs for each semester was always sent out to graduate students in the department, this is also no longer done. I urge departments to clearly communicate with interested parties at each stop of the application process to allow for oversight; if the regulations are followed, there is no need to avoid transparency.

The Instructors:
I have had little to complain about regarding the instructors I have taught for. In contrast, many TAs do not have the luxury of selecting the course/instructor and some are stuck with bad teachers such that the learning demands of the student must not only be supplemented by, but at times exclusively met by the TA. While I cannot claim to have experienced this, I can sympathize with the frustrations of those who have.

Student Expectations:
The entitlement of a select few students is a character flaw which TAs must grapple with. Paying tuition and attending classes does not guarantee a certain grade and expecting special consideration and preferential treatment with no apparent effort is proof in point of the bad habits which are reinforced by our education system. One hopes that these expectations are modified with age and maturity for the majority of these students.

The Ugly:

Falling Standards:
The standards of entering students is fast deteriorating. This is especially apparent in 100 and 200 level courses, before the lowest common denominator change to less onerous majors or drop out altogether. Numerous questionable changes at the secondary level, such as removing provincial examination requirements and inflating student grades have done disservice to the average student who is now less prepared than ever for the challenges of post-secondary education.

Void of Motivation:
Lack of motivation combined with parental expectations ill-prepares students for an environment which they do not want to be a part of. Many desire post-secondary education in order to compete in a saturated job market, but a disengaged student stands to gain little other than a degree in exchange for a large temporal and financial investment.

Ending on a Positive:
I have interacted with more senior students in recent semesters who, on the whole are: smart, driven, and highly engaged in the programs which will presumably determine the course of their working lives. However, among these students, a pointed focus on grades culminates at times in the neglect of learning for the sake of understanding. I would encourage these students to enjoy the process, which often ensures a satisfactory endpoint as well.

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