Diversity: Finding The Right Words

On Being A Teaching Assistant (TA) In Grad School


So, you want to go to grad school? Keep reading.

Grad school funding comes in many forms.

Some students are lucky enough to be awarded fellowships (scholarships that don’t need to be repaid). Others rely on student loans.

Most graduate students will at some point encounter TAships, or teaching assistantships, where they act as discussion leaders, graders, and tutorial instructors for a larger class run by a professor.

Being a TA is often a first chance to teach, to be in a position of authority, and to evaluate students’ progress. It’s a big responsibility and one that takes time to grow into.

By the time you’ve reached grad school you’ve had plenty of professors, lab instructors, and TAs. You’ve seen good teachers and you’ve seen bad teachers. But it’s an entirely different matter when you are at the front of the room and everyone is looking at you.

Being a TA is often a first chance to teach, to be in a position of authority, and to evaluate students’ progress. It’s a big responsibility and one that takes time to grow into.

While some people are natural leaders, they still have a lot to learn, because being a TA is not just about teaching.


The biggest challenge to new teachers is establishing their authority in the classroom. This is especially difficult for new TAs who might only be a year or two older than their students. When I began TAing, I was actually younger than most of my students for the first couple years!

The important thing to remember is that you are an instructor, not a friend. Your job is to impart valuable information, help students grapple with challenging subjects, and evaluate their success. If your primary concern is whether the students like you, it becomes impossible to complete your responsibilities effectively and professionally.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t have great rapport with your students. Ideally, your class sections should be something you and your students look forward to. You will build relationships with some students over several classes, and even beyond their degrees. Some students will in the future become your friends. But when you teach you need to remain professional and objective.


If anything stresses out new TAs, it is grading. Evaluating other students is an entirely new task for most, and doing it fairly and consistently takes practice and confidence.

It is important both for your students and for you to have a grading rubric that explains what constitutes an “A” paper, a “B” paper, etc. This establishes your expectations for students, but also helps you to conceptualize what you will expect for each grade range. In time you won’t need this but to begin with, it is a valuable tool benefiting everyone.

Perhaps the biggest stress, however, is how to deal with students who appeal their grades. Some students simply want to know how to improve their work, while others can be confrontational and aggressive. In either case, it’s important to have clear and established policies for how to deal with the situation.

I put as many comments as possible on assignments so that students knew exactly how their grade was determined. I’m also a strong believer in the power of red ink. Students are invariably surprised to find a grade higher than they expected after seeing so much ink on their papers. Few complain.  I also never let students speak to me about grades without a 24 hour “cooling down” period.


Teaching is probably the easiest part of being a TA. For the most part, at least in the humanities, you will be clarifying themes, going over assignments, and explaining concepts to students that have already been introduced by the professor. It is not your responsibility to teach new material. You are the TA; an assistant, not a professor.

The important thing to remember is that you already have several years more experience and knowledge than your students. You might not know every detail of the material they are learning, but you know how to find it. And it’s OK simply to say that you’ll look something up when a question stumps you. Looking something up and coming back to students with an answer shows you’re engaged and taking them seriously. You earn respect.

When you first TA, your supervising professor and senior TAs will be invaluable resources. They will likely already have grading rubrics, assignment templates, and support materials. Seek this out, save it, modify it, and most of all enjoy yourself!

So, you want to go to grad school? Click here to read more.

Photo credit: Listen to Teach by Claire L. Evans on Flickr

About the author

Justin Bengry completed a PhD in History and Feminist Studies at the University of California in 2009. He is an avid writer, photographer, and traveler, with the past 6 years having seen him move at least a dozen times across 2 continents and 4 countries. He now finds himself in Waterloo, Ontario (for the time being). Justin writes articles, book reviews, and blogs on education, history, queer studies, and travel that have been published in the academic and mainstream press. www.justinbengry.com