"Too many cooks!" Ironically, that's how students sometimes feel about classes that have one or more teaching assistants in addition to the instructor. And, very often that feeling is justified. If all those teachers don't concur on what's important to teach and how it should be taught, student learning is more likely to be hurt than helped by the well-intended availability of teaching assistants for a course. Teamwork, before and during the course, is a must if students are to get the real benefit of having a teaching "team." Moreover, close collaboration between instructor and teaching assistant(s) can provide excellent opportunities for mentoring and training those graduate students who plan on pursuing academic careers.
From teaching a Biology course with five teaching assistants who ran mandatory discussion sections for solving problems, I have found that a key component of effective teamwork is communication-LOTS of it. And, this communication has to include all class participants. Here are some suggestions for communication activities that might be useful to incorporate into your course routine.
Hold a pre-course meeting with your TAs.
A meeting before the course begins provides an opportunity for conveying to teaching assistants your goals and expectations for the students in the course. Now is the time to share teaching philosophies and to establish standards for student performance that will guide the teaching team through its interactions with the students. This is also the time to establish the mentality of working as a team: Implement an absolute ban on any use of the "good cop / bad cop" routine! From your side, that means welcoming the TAs as colleagues, promising not to put their own grasp of the subject on trial. Presuming that your TAs were selected because they are qualified to do the job, you help them overcome some of the tension and pressure associated with teaching if you show them that you are confident in what they know. From the TA's side, teamwork reeing not to blame you when students start looking for a scapegoat for hard-to-solve problems and disappointing grades.
Hold weekly meetings with your TAs.
Regular meetings provide some of the best opportunities for mentoring TAs, while simultaneously guaranteeing that course policies are uniformly applied. TAs can raise questions about how to work through difficult problems during the discussion sections or office hours, and everyone can brainstorm possible solutions to those problems. You can point out where students have typically struggled with material in previous years, thereby preparing the TAs to handle the "unexpected." Everyone can share ideas for dealing with any difficult classroom situations that are encountered, for example, a disruptive student or a non-responsive class. Finally, grading policies should be a recurring topic at these meetings because students need to be assured that grades are assigned fairly across all discussion sections by all TAs.
Encourage your TAs to meet weekly by themselves.
Regular meetings of the TAs alone are most effective when there is at least one TA who has taught in the course previously, and this veteran TA can often take on the role of "lead TA" to help coordinate the group's efforts. The TAs must work together in determining the content and grading of quizzes and homework problem sets to guarantee consistency and fairness.
Provide your TAs with all available instructional resources for the course.
Nothing can fully replace actual experience when it comes to developing as a teacher. But teaching aids can help, so provide your TAs with as many as possible. These might include guides and solutions manuals from textbook publishers, as well as materials that you have written or assembled. For example, consider offering copies of your lecture notes to help TAs understand what concepts are important to you and how you intend to develop those concepts logically for the students.Then, during lectures, your TAs can concentrate on watching your logic develop, observing your presentation techniques, and thinking about how they might adapt those techniques for their own class sessions.
Post a course FAQ on your course website.Anyone who has taught a course more than once knows that the structure of the course evolves over time. Each time through, we try new approaches and policies that we hope will enhance learning, eliminate inequities, streamline administrative chores. Like natural selection, we keep what works and throw out what doesn't. Yet because students only take a class once, they often don't consider the reasons behind course policies, nor do those reasons register when you explain them during the first class meeting. Moreover, the TAs are usually in a similar position, not having been involved with the evolution of the course. After years of silently defending course policies/activities that had been questioned in anonymous course evaluations at the end of the course, I now write a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) for the course and post it on the website:
For both students and TAs, the FAQ is a reference that tells them directly how your way optimizes their learning, or what practices have failed in the past. While not essential to the success of your course, communication by FAQ can help redirect student energy away from complaining and toward the actual work of the course.
Arrange for your TAs to be observed while they teach.
You can help your TAs become more effective teachers by encouraging them to carry on a dialogue about teaching. Suggest that they attend each other's discussion sections as observers and then exchange ideas and/or advice. Attend the discussion sections yourself and do the same. (The Teaching Resource Center has information about effective observation methods and can help with training, if desired.) Finally, encourage your TAs to take advantage of the Teaching Resource Center: Urge them to schedule a Teaching Analysis Poll (TAP) or class videotaping early in the semester, so that useful suggestions can be incorporated immediately into their teaching plans.By working together, the "too many cooks" can become a three-star team: their work benefits not only the students but also the TAs, who learn from a highly skilled expert, and the professor, who has the support of well-trained assistants.