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by Devin McGinty
"Oh, crap." Those are the words you utter to yourself as you enter a room full of undergraduate students on your first day teaching class. You're a few minutes late because you weren't familiar with the location of the classroom. Some students, merely a few years younger than yourself, carry on personal conversations and text, as if you're invisible. The jeans and t-shirt you are wearing isn't exactly a professorial ensemble. You've seen a handful of the students at the bars that you frequent, and you're not sure how to handle this awkward realization. Should you be the classroom dictator or the cool professor? Mr. Hand from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, or Mr. Shoop from Summer School? Questions and jokes swirl around the room. You're unsure of how to begin your introductory lecture, and the students smell your fear; they envision a semester of cutting class, disputing the syllabus, and negotiating grades.
Meanwhile, across campus a fellow T.A. is strolling into a similar classroom. Wearing a sport coat and khakis he appears comfortable, yet academic. He writes his name on the board, preceded by the title "Mr." -- giving off an air of authority. After calmly asking the students to get settled and handing out the syllabi, he outlines the class requirements, grading policies and his office hours. Some students are chatting in the back, the T.A. stops mid-sentence and makes eye-contact with them. Feeling awkward, they quiet down, and the rest of the class understands who is boss. After a brief exercise that helps students get to know one another, the class is dismissed. The students appreciate that he let them out early; however, they walk away with a clear picture of the course requirements and an understanding of the T.A.'s mature demeanor.
What's the difference between you and that other T.A.? The other guy read The Teaching Assistants' (T.A) Bible: Guide for Graduate Students, Adjuncts & College Instructors by Bakari Akil II, Ph.D. After reading the book, it becomes clear that preparation is the key to success as a new teacher/professor. Dr. Akil is well-versed in dealing with graduate education; he has Ph.D. in Mass Communication from Florida State University, he's currently an Assistant Professor at Florida State College in Jacksonville, and he has numerous other publications. If being properly prepared helped him to accomplish such a great deal, new T.A.'s can clearly benefit from his advice.
Early in the book Dr. Akil advises that new teachers, "Never wing it! Even though you may know the subject cold, it is best to practice your lecture a few times before teaching it to your class." Being prepared and professional will help new teachers "build credibility" with the undergraduate students. Furthermore, Dr. Akil stresses the importance of mentally visualizing potential problems/questions, as well as visiting the classroom beforehand to become familiar with your new surroundings. These words of wisdom seem simple; however, these exercises can "increase the probability of you conducting a relatively trouble free class."
The book introduces potential T.A.'s to several common scenarios that can arise in the classroom. Various issues with students, complaints about grades, or questions for which you have no answer -- how are you supposed to handle these situations? If students are often tardy, or exhibit rude behavior that disrupts class, "a good way to handle these transgressions so that students understand that your classroom is an orderly environment is to address the issues immediately."
In addition, Dr. Akil stresses the importance of relying on the syllabus. It's not necessary to "re-invent the wheel" when it comes to the syllabus, but it is important to clearly list office hours (and stick to them), as well as grading policies that are in accord with the standards of your department. These steps are solutions to problems that can arise throughout the semester; however, there will always be a question for which you have no immediate answer, and that's okay. "Simply admit that you do not know [the answer] and that you will find out for the student or class...the class will sniff you out if you try to fake a response."
Although the book isn't quite prophetic enough to be described as a "bible," it's at least a T.A. "catechism." The chapter titles read like FAQs, and they're followed by answers that can lead you toward T.A. enlightenment. This book offers simple answers to questions that people often over-complicate.