Teaching the assistants

Training for teaching assistants inconsistent, difficult to monitor, Centre for Teaching and Learning says

Andy Leger
Andy Leger

This April, the Consultative Committee on Teaching Assistants surveyed all departments at Queen’s regarding their practices on the training of teaching assistants.

The results showed that 1,990 TAships were awarded at Queen’s for the 2007-2008 academic year. Of these, 76 individual TAs received no formal training of any kind, despite the University policy requiring departments to provide a specialized training program for their TAs.

David Rappaport, Associate Dean, School of Graduate Studies and Research, chaired the Consultative Commission on Teaching Assistants.

Rappaport told the Journal via email the commission is currently analyzing the collected data.

“The questionnaire was circulated in April to all units who employ TAs in order to assess current practice in various aspects pertaining to TAs, and to determine whether any particular provisions of the Senate policy on Teaching Assistants require updating,” he said.

Janice Deakin, Dean of Graduate Studies and Research, said the University monitors its TAs’ progress.

“Departments and the School of Graduate Studies work closely together to identify needs and provide ongoing training and support for Teaching Assistants,” Deakin told the Journal via e-mail.

“We all recognize that constant assessment is required in order to best prepare our teaching assistants so that they are successful both as professionals and for the students they are teaching.”

Andy Leger, Educational Developer for the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL), said many departments have deferred their TAs to the CTL for training.

“Each department can decide what [training] entails … I think at the very least, they should go over the policy regarding disputes,” he said.

Leger told the Journal no one knows the exact number of TAs employed by the University.

The CTL trains TAs through the Professional Development Day for Teaching Assistants (TA Day), a day-long seminar held every year in September aimed at providing TAs with the tools they need to teach effectively. The TA Day for this year was held on Sept. 5.

“A lot of departments aren’t [training their TAs] and that’s the problem,” he said. “A lot of them defer to us. … You still need to have department-specific content.” There is no definitive record of how many departments are offering their own training.

Four hundred and thirty-eight TAs attended this year’s TA Day. In addition to speakers from among faculty and administrators and panel discussions, TAs had the opportunity to attend three sessions of the total 33 sessions offered.

Sessions included Equity Issues in the Queen’s Classroom, run by Stephanie Simpson, associate director of the Human Rights Office, and a panel discussion about what undergraduates expect from a TA, led by Matthew Lombardi, ArtSci ’10.

Some of these sessions, such as Simpson’s, are repeated by the CTL later in the year, so TAs have an opportunity to attend workshops they missed.

Leger cited a lack of resources, budget cuts and fewer faculty to support TAs as reasons for training inconsistencies.

“More have been looking to the CTL to provide that support … especially TA Day,” he said. “Unfortunately, TA Day cannot be everything for everybody … departments need to do something to supplement.

“There’s going to be good TAs, there’s going to be bad TAs, there’s going to be TAs that will choose to do TA Day or do some form of development and take it seriously and there’s going to be some that are not. From our point of view, we just provide opportunities to develop.”

Leger said he didn’t know of any ramifications for those departments that aren’t carrying out their own TA training.

Leger told the Journal that last year, the CTL sent letters to the Departments of Chemistry and Physics, Engineering Physics and Astronomy after it was discovered that those departments were employing TAs who had not yet passed the English Communication Assessment, an English language proficiency test. Senate policy requires all TAs who do not speak English as their first language must take this test before being allowed to teach.

“Once it became apparent to me, I phoned the departments and said it’s not fair, you shouldn’t do this to the students, and they immediately changed the assignments,” Leger said. “There wasn’t any implications and nor should there be … really, it was just two departments out of 50.”

Michael Mombourquette, associate professor and undergraduate lab co-ordinator in the Department of Chemistry, said his department is very careful to ensure that its TAs are given sufficient training to prepare them for the classroom.

“There’s two days of training at the beginning of the term in September. We have our own departmental TA day that involves safety training, general how-to do things training, and then specific to whatever lab you’re teaching.” Mombourquette said no grad student who hasn’t passed the English Communication Assessment can be given a TA position within his department.

“They need to pass the ECA,” he said. “We can’t give them a teaching assignment until they have passed it.”

Mombourquette said grad students who aren’t given TA positions aren’t in danger of losing their funding.

“Every grad student in our department gets a minimum stipend so whether they get a TA position or not doesn’t hurt them. The individual TAs in our department all get full funding from their professors if they don’t get it from somewhere else.”

Heather Cyr, PhD ’10, has worked as a TA for the Department of English Language and Literature for the past three years. Cyr received training from the English department as well as attending TA Day.

Cyr told the Journal in an e-mail she felt adequately prepared to teach when she began working as a TA, and attributes this to the supportive environment provided by the English department.

“There is a very positive atmosphere when it comes to pedagogical training in my department and there was a lot of excitement concerning implementing the tutorials. Everyone wanted the transition to go as smoothly as possible,” she said.

Cyr said not every TA’s experiences are entirely positive, but the support is there for those who need it.

“Not everyone has this kind of first teaching experience, but I was lucky enough to have a wonderful balance of chemistry, positive energy and respect between myself, my supervisors and my students. …There is a constant process of evaluation, growing and encouragement between faculty and TAs and between the TAs themselves. You are never out there alone.”

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

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