mcgillcrestJan 29, 2009, was the Teacher Assistant (TA) training workshop, organised by the Association for Graduate Students, for the Religious Studies graduate students of McGill University.

At McGill, and probably in most major universities, Teacher Assistants are used extensively to help the Professors with the huge workload, especially in Undergraduate classes. The roles of the Teacher Assistant (TA) are varied but usually include grading papers, handling conferences (classroom discussions) and sometimes even teaching. However, in recent times it has been felt by many TAs (at McGill) that they have been over-worked, under-trained and under-paid. So this past year, the TAs at McGill have devised a workload form that will make them and the Professors accountable about the exact hours spent on each course co-taught. However, most TAs still feel that they are not equipped to handle the rigours of teaching and needed some training for the basic tasks of grading and classroom management.

To address the latter concern, the first workshop for TA teacher training was organised. The Workshop began at 8:30am (which on a snow-bound Montreal morning seems unearthly). And went on till 11:30am. There was a session addressing how to grade, how to manage (and teach) classes, maintaining a healthy relationship with the the professor and students, and finally a session on TA rights.

In terms of ideas, the basic thrust was:

1. We need rubrics to grade
2. We need to be more careful to realise that as teachers, we may be causing the very negative behaviour in students that we despise
3. Keep a track of all the time you spend as a TA, including preparation and training time.
4. Keep a relationship with students as cordial, but not as “friends”… and avoid even a hint of sexual harassment!

I found most of the workshop really helpful, (though the last part was made strange by its contextual relevance to McGill and thankfully not so much back in India… yet) especially given a few ideas on teaching I never thought before. Some of those lessons included…

1. In forming rubrics, first decide what is an A paper and what is an F paper, and then start working out the in-between.

2. When grading, (and this is something I never used to believe in, but have probably started to change), there is no difference between a grade of a good PhD paper and a good MA paper. The difference lies in the type of assignment, not in the type of grade. Thus, the type of assignment given to an MA student will be different than a PhD student, but if a PhD and an MA student were given the same paper, then it is best not to devise two separate rubrics to grade these students, but rather treat them equally.

3. When handling class discussions, avoid being critical of students. In fact, it is probably ONLY encouragement that motivates students and not criticism or even healthy constructive criticism! (This is something I think I have to drill into my head because while I sense it is true, I am not very encouraging in practice).

4. When handling classroom discussions, and when there is a stalemate between a particular student and teacher, it is best to turn the question to the class and ask them, “What do you think?”

5. When trying to get students to talk in class, sometimes a question is a closed question (where the answer is fixed, hence not a real question). To get good ‘real’ questions, it is best to ask the students, “what kinds of questions can you ask?” The popcorn could result in questions (and thus pursuits of answers) that might surprise even the lecturer.

6. When a teacher asks a student a question, the question should model to the students how good questions can be asked.

7. Civility is an important term in the classroom. The law of civility states that it is uncivil to browse the internet during class, to be visibly bored in class, etc etc. However, the teacher must realise that this uncivil behaviour from students is usually a result of uncivil behaviour from the teacher… where the teacher is disrespectful of student opinion, or the teacher is going too fast.

8…. ok, that’s it. I know there’s more… but you get the idea.

On the whole, good stuff!