Qualities of a Good Teaching Assistant

When describing the culture of CMU SCS, I think its undeniable to in part cite our TA culture and the uniquely commonplace experience for undergraduates in SCS to simultaneously maintain the dual roles of being a Teaching Assistant in one class while being a student in other classes.

For me personally, becoming a TA has been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had the privilege of having since coming to CMU. Over the course of my four semesters now as a student and my three semester TAing, I’ve developed somewhat of a personal take on a few core qualities that I believe are important in striving to become a better TA.

This isn’t intended to sound preachy or hypercritical of TAs. This is simply my way of sharing thoughts and tips I’ve picked up through learning from other experienced TAs on my course staff, observing the TAs that I’ve personally had as an undergrad, as well as my own ongoing journey to improve myself as a TA.

Avoid claiming things are “easy”

One of the most common mistakes that new TAs, in particular, are susceptible to making is oversimplifying and trivializing topics by telling students that a topic is “easy.”

Chances are if you’ve been hired to be a TA, you did well in the class that you are a TA for. You’re pretty knowledgeable about the content of the class and you’ve had much more experience with the material than any incoming student in the class. Maybe you got an A in the class you now TA with little effort because you already learned 90% of the material taught. Maybe you got a B and you struggled with some topics, but at the very least some of the topics you once found difficult while you were in the class, now come much more easily to you over the course of the semester(s) since you first took the class.

However, as smart or confident in the material as you may be, a TA should always mindful of the perspective of students learning something new for the first time. This begins with a simple teaching practice of avoiding to claim things are “easy” even when you personally perceive that thing to be easy. More often than not, your students, who have significantly less experience and knowledge than you, do not actually think that topic is easy when they are learning about it for the first time and adjusting to the concept or idea. Instead, hearing a TA calling things outright “easy” more often than not plants doubts and discouraging thoughts in the mind of students that somehow they’ve fallen behind the rest of the class, that they’re struggling with a topic that presumably every student around them finds “easy” and that they’re not learning properly when they find a so-called “easy” topic still difficult and effortful.

The thoughts of feeling behind your fellow peers or the experience of struggling to grasp a concept are not uncommon amongst most college students. But perhaps, the most concerning consequence of claiming that something is “easy” is that I believe the term “easy”, in our societal semantic understanding of the word, is too commonly associated with “effortless.” In other words, when something is said to be easy, the implication is that it should come so naturally to you that it doesn’t require any effort or hard work on your part to understand or solve the problem. Given this notion of often associating easy with effortless, this further brings to light how discouraging it can be for students when they are told something is “easy.” It disillusions students into potentially thinking that they should be naturally smart enough to also effortlessly accomplish an “easy” task, rather than help students to maintain a growth mindset that things become more familiar and less difficult with effortful practice and work.

Of course, sometimes it’s unavoidable to want to qualify the difficulty of a particular topic or task. In these circumstances, I’ve found that describing the topic or task as “not bad”, or “looks difficult initially, but isn’t”, or “is not as difficult relative to…” are better alternatives than outright saying “this is easy”, “this is simple” or “everyone should understand how to do this.” The alternative phrasings I’ve suggested here still convey the notion of evaluating difficulty, but I believe they at least distance themselves from the semantic representation of being “effortless,” which students typically find more discouraging than helpful.

Prioritizing the student’s needs over your own ego

On my current course staff, we have this acronym, CCP. It stands for Correct, Consistent, and Professional, three overarching principles that every TA on staff, returning or new, is reminded to uphold each semester. I particularly want to emphasize correctness here because I think this point is often overlooked or initially misunderstood by TAs.

As a TA if you’ve said something wrong, shared some information with a single student in OH or a classroom full of students that is inaccurate, to be correct and consistent is to admit that you were wrong and correct your mistake at the first opportunity that you have. This is radically different from claiming that everything you say is correct.

If a student points out you’re wrong, and you realize it, don’t try to insist that you’re right to save face. If a student blindly believes something that you’ve said, and then you later realize it was wrong, don’t just try to get away with the mistake and pretend nothing happened. Aim to be proactive about reaching out to that student and correcting the spreading of misinformation. If a student asks you a question, and you don’t know the answer, don’t make up a bogus answer to satisfy the student. Openly admit that you’re unsure or need to confirm with other TAs to provide the student with the true answer that they are seeking.

In failing to be correct or consistent, not only might you mislead students or disadvantage certain students, but you are also diminishing a student’s confidence in you as a TA as well as other TAs on the course staff by reinforcing an image of TAs as being unreliable, unhelpful, and untrustworthy. This can discourage students from seeking help from TAs in the future, even when the TA can actually be beneficial to the student’s learning.

I’ll be the first to admit that being wrong, having someone point out that you’re wrong never instinctively feel good. Not knowing the answer when you’re in a position where you’re expected to be all-knowing, doesn’t feel good. Having insecurities about your qualifications as a TA and then having students ask hard questions you don’t know the answer to, doesn’t feel good. I too have experienced these sentiments and uncomfortable circumstances. However, to be a good TA often means putting aside your bruised feelings, pride, or ego in order to prioritize the needs of the student and to fulfill the goal of your role, which is ultimately to help students learn.

At the end of the day, I think it’s important to remember that the role of a TA is to help students learn the most that they can in the class and your success as a TA, is measured by how much your students have learned, and not by proving how much you know to your students.

Keeping your own emotions in check

This is probably one of the more unspoken and understated skills of a good TA, but I would argue one of the more important and directly impactful skills. If you’re a student in SCS or have taken any CS course at CMU in particular, you know that the vast majority of these CS classes are extremely difficult. They’re grueling. They’re intentionally designed to be challenging. They can take a toll on your work-life balance, your sleep schedule, and your mental health. If you’re a TA, then you’ve also voluntarily signed up to spend 10+ hours of your time each week TAing on top of your own challenging coursework.

There have been many times in my past three semesters of TAing where I have been unenthused about having to go to my own OH because I was stressed about my own work, or tired, or just sick of having to debug someone else’s code. However, I know that one of the single worst things I can do as a TA is take that stress or impatience out on a student. So when I walk into my office hours or my recitation, I’ve learned to push my own emotions aside for the duration of time where it’s my job to prioritize being helpful to other students.

As you TA, you’ll certainly come across circumstances at some point when a student is visibly distressed about their inability to understand something, anxious about a forthcoming exam, frustrated at their futile efforts to find a bug for the past X hours, or has just been sitting at office hours for over 1-2 hours waiting to speak with you. As a TA, I believe we should be able to recognize the position of power that we’re in and try to empathize with students in these circumstances, especially when chances are we’ve also been in the reverse student position in other classes. When I encounter any student who seems really down on themselves and frustrated, I try my best to be a positive influence. Even when I, as a TA, feel discouraged about addressing the source of a student’s bug or problem, or feel like I’ve tried explaining the same thing many times and the student still isn’t getting it, I try to maintain an encouraging and upbeat mentality and focus on pointing them towards a potential solution path that they can feel confident pursuing instead of throwing in the towel, acting impatient, or visibly giving up on the student.

Students are smart. They can tell when a TA lacks interest in helping, seems apathetic, or impatient. Chances are, in those moments, the attitude of the TA will frustrate and discourage the student more rather than help them feel empowered and like they have a sense of direction of what next steps they can take to resolve the problem they’re stuck on. I’m not attempting to imply here that every TA should be expected to counsel students or be responsible for resolving their anxiety and stress. Rather, I’m proposing that TAs should at least be thoughtful and intentional about how they communicate and how their own emotions come across in such a way that doesn’t add onto the frustration of students who may waited a long time to seek guidance from a TA or has been feeling stuck and lost for quite a while.

In conclusion…

If you’ve made it this far, I hope this has been mildly helpful, insightful, or encouraged you to consider being a TA. I’d like to conclude by saying that again, I am so fortunate and privileged to even be in a position where I can talk about my experiences being a TA. I was a nervous wreck my first semester as a TA and I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today or be able to write about some of the TA tips I’ve picked up along the way without other 122 TAs mentoring me and frequently answering my confused questions, and for that I’m incredibly grateful.