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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Teaching Assistant (TA) Guide: Students

Resources and guidance for teaching assistants (TAs) on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus.

Quick Tips

•   Students are students, not friends, pals, or buddies.

•   Be confident, even if it is an act.

•   Be respectful. They might not be your friend, but they are a person.

•   Your job is to help them learn. Even if they frustrate you.

•   Respond promptly to emails from students. Imagine how anxious you are waiting for your advisor to write back.

•   Your office hours are not a failure, even if no one shows for the first two thirds of the semester. 

Questions and Answers

      How should I communicate with students?

First, you should develop the type of relationship where students feel comfortable coming to you with questions. Keep the lines of communication open through email and announcements in class. Open office hours are also a good way to meet with students who need extra help. Make the relationship about trust and reliability. Respond promptly to students’ questions either by phone or email. Keep all grades confidential. Return assignments promptly. 

      How can I get students to respect my authority?

TAs walk a difficult line. They are neither student peers nor full professors. Sometimes you might not know how to interact with students, and they too might see you more as a friend rather than a teacher. You should be friendly with students. You may see students more frequently and develop a more informal relationship with them than with a faculty member. However, you never want to step across the line from friendly to “buddy” or romantic. Avoid commenting about students’ dress or appearance.  If you are respectful and courteous to your students, they should treat you with that same respect.  

      What if students treat me differently because of my gender, race, or sexual orientation?

Make sure that you treat students with the same respect that you wish to have from them.  Students will judge you by your behavior, so make sure you avoid slurs and foul language. Remember you are speaking to a diverse group of students from different backgrounds, so avoid references that could be taken as offensive.

If you believe that students are treating you differently because of gender, race, or sexual orientation, you can have a general discussion of the university’s policies on discrimination; you can seek advice from the instructor; or you can turn to the Counseling Center  for suggestions about how to handle the matter.

        What is my role between the students and the professor?

It is not your job to be the middle manager between students and the faculty member. Instead, think of the relationship like a triangle, with each individual (student, TA, and instructor) making up one point. The lines between the points indicate relationships. You have a relationship with the professor which does not include the student, just as the student has a relationship with the professor without the TA. Additionally, TAs and students have their own relationship. While you should certainly listen to students' concerns, if it is beyond your jurisdiction, advise them to speak with the professor about the issues. 

      How do I manage disruptive students?

Be firm. Do not let them run away with the class. Even students who begin to dominate the class discussion need to be made aware of this. If students have an issue that has arisen from the class, invite them to speak with you afterwards, and move on with the lecture. Other students will appreciate your effort to get the class back on track. Make sure, too, that you don’t give students the opportunity to be disruptive. If you have students who goof off in the back of the class, lecture from the back of the room. If you have students who are not participating, call on them to respond to a question. 

      How should I manage my open office hours?

First, you want to make sure your hours are consistent and that you are there when you say you will be. It is important for students to be able to depend on you. Make sure to really dedicate yourself to those hour(s). If you have to miss one week, make sure you inform your students in advance (or if you must, leave a visible note on your door). Keep your office door open when meeting with students as it creates a professional distance. 

       What if students complain about a grade?

There are various reasons why a student might complain to you about a grade they received: they felt as if they worked harder, they did similar work as they did on a previous assignment, they need a better grade for a scholarship/program/department, they think your standards are too high, or most of the critiques given were about spelling and grammar and not the assignment. These may be true. In general, you should be consistent in keeping the grade you gave based on the grading formula. If there is a genuine mistake, admit to it and change their grade. However, if you stick with your original marking, explain this to the student. Show them the rubric, talk with them about your grading procedure, and explain how they might improve their work for the next assignment. It is important for a student to feel heard, even if you do not change the grade. 

         What if students complain to me about the instructor?

This is a fine line to walk as you want to make sure you don’t take sides. It is not your job to justify the instructor, but you must not betray him or her to the students. You want to keep the lines of communication open between you and the students, which can only happen if they feel that you are your own person beyond the instructor, but you do not want to create anarchy by siding with the students during a conflict. Inform the instructor about the situation and take it from there. Most importantly you should remember that while you should advise or help when needed, this is not your problem.  

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