TA Tell-All: Three Drexel Teaching Assistants’ Thoughts on Working with Students, Faculty and Each Other

From left to right, this picture includes: Meghan Barrett, a biology PhD student at Drexel University; Alexis Finger, chair of Drexel's TA Excellence committee; and Pat Phatharodom, a PhD student in electrical and computer engineering.

From left to right, the above picture includes: Meghan Barrett, a biology PhD student at Drexel University; Alexis Finger, chair of Drexel's TA Excellence committee; and Pat Phatharodom, a PhD student in electrical and computer engineering. Below photo courtesy of Tim Clyne, a Doctor of Nursing Practice student.

Three Drexel University teaching assistants (TAs) walk into a conference room… and find that they have a lot to talk about. Find out what these TAs — all with different teaching backgrounds, experiences and attitudes — find common ground on as well as how they work with students, faculty and each other to elevate what the University is able to offer its undergrads.

Their conversation was moderated by Alexis Finger, an associate teaching professor of English in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“I’m delighted to be here,” she said to the TAs before getting started. “Since I’ve worked with TAs for so many years, I have such an appreciation for how hard it is to manage your time and to do the things that you do that have such an impact on the students. I know it can be challenging, but very rewarding. So I’m thrilled to be here and to hear what you have to say.”

Finger: Let’s start off by introducing ourselves.

Clyne: My name is Tim Clyne. I’m a registered nurse. I was a [virtual] TA in the previous quarter in nursing research and I’m a Doctor of Nursing Practice student.

Barrett: I’m Meghan Barrett. I’m a biology PhD student here. I teach BIO 207 and 208 which are Applications in Biology I and II, a skills-based course for sophomore level students.

Phatharodom: My name is Pat Phatharodom. I am a PhD student in electrical and computer engineering. I have been TA-ing some classes that involve computer labs, and my students are freshmen and second-year.

Finger: I’m Alexis Finger and I’m the chair of the TA Excellence Committee and I've been training international TAs for many years. I’ve also been the instructor and organizer of the TA preparation course for all new teaching assistants.

Finger: What aspect of being a TA at Drexel do you find most satisfying?

Finger: What aspect of being a TA at Drexel do you find most satisfying?

Barrett: I think for me what’s most satisfying is getting students engaged in the material that we're working on. This is their first opportunity to engage in the frontiers of scientific research instead of just learning long-ago established facts. I think that’s kind of an “aha” moment for a lot of the students in my class that think science is really, really cool now, maybe when they didn’t think it was that cool before. I like facilitating those moments of understanding.

Phatharodom: The thing for me is to see students coming into the class describing how they are very nervous about programming, they don’t know how to code and they’re very nervous about failing the class. In the end they kind of hang on. So seeing them getting out of the class more comfortable with programming, that’s definitely what’s most impactful for me.

Finger: So, we know that there are many rewards. What about the challenges?

Clyne: Probably the time management. I do work a full-time job, I’m certainly taking a heavy course load and then really giving my focus and attention to the TA role, I really had to sit down and plan out my time wisely. Then, of course there’s making myself available to students as much as possible throughout the quarter.

Barrett: Related to that, [there’s] a lack of resources or support for when I have students that I am struggling with. I do have my experienced faculty instructor but I think sometimes there are students that are more challenging to work with than others, perhaps because your teaching style doesn’t perhaps mesh as well with that student’s learning style. And so, for those students, I wish I had more resources and that there was even more training support for TAs coming in. 

Phatharodom: Sometimes I provide additional material to students, and it’s very hard for me to measure how useful the new material is. When I ask them they usually say it’s helpful, but you can’t really tell how helpful it is. As a grad student, you always don’t have enough time, so you kind of want to justify your effort.

Finger: How have you worked on time management? What advice would you give your fellow TAs?

Clyne: I think that what really helped me was having conversations with my faculty from the beginning and then ongoing about expectations of the role, divvying up the work and really looking at what needs to happen moving forward. Of course things come up throughout the quarter in terms of time management where you start to work a little bit more individually with students. And so, it was also continuing to have a conversation about those students that may have been struggling and really dividing and conquering as needed.

Barrett: I try to set hard limits for how much time I’m going to spend on helping students outside of my typical classroom responsibilities. That goes for telling the students that I won’t answer their emails about homework assignments after 2 p.m. the day before class so that I’m not getting 30 emails on a Wednesday night for class on Thursday. This also makes sure they’ve looked at their homework earlier and that their e-mails are more spaced out so I’m not getting overloaded or overwhelmed by student responses.

And while I tell my students that I’m always available to hold extra office hours to meet with them and things like that, I again try to make sure that I’m setting rules for like, “OK, before the final you can't all email me on Monday if the final is on Tuesday and ask me to hold an extra review session. I need to hear from you by X period of time.” That usually limits me to interacting with the students who are really intentional about their learning and planning to have extra time with me and meet with me. 

Phatharodom: Whether on paper you’re supposed to work 10 or 20 hours per week, you should try your best and do whatever you can within that set hours. Although usually it’s not going to be enough. So what I feel personally is that there's a quote that I hear that says “dirty job done right.”

A lot of things in college, including being a good TA, is a dirty job done right. You can’t do it perfectly. Even though you want to spend more time doing it, you won’t have the time to. So for example, when I was grading the midterms, I don’t think I could grade it thoroughly within the allotted time. Sometimes I work overtime because I feel like it would not be fair to the students to grade the exams too quickly.

Barrett: I would say that [Phatharodom’s comment] comes back to the lack of resources. We need to either have more time and thus be paid to actually spend the time to do a quality job, or there needs to be more TAs or more graders brought in for these courses so that we can do a fair and reasonable job on grading assignments.

Finger: So what kind of support do you receive from your department and from your advisor?

Clyne: I think that particularly in the beginning of the quarter there was some onboarding that we did in the online format, which was new to me. There was some coursework prior to the course that really gave you an understanding of how to navigate Blackboard behind the scenes, how to get metrics in terms of student engagement into the course. So that really was beneficial to me because I was able to do an intervention or work with the student and then go back and kind of see if this was an effective way to really engage the whole class of students or maybe serve students that were necessarily engaging prior. So I think that engagement prior to the course really helped me put things together and execute them.

Barrett: We each have a faculty member who kind of heads the course — the faculty instructor — and they will meet with their TAs usually on a weekly basis to make sure we’re all on the same page with how we’re grading things and how we’re teaching the course, and they go over the course material with you to make sure that you know what you’re teaching. But as far as actual pedagogical training or pedagogical review, there’s very little of that. … We do have several graduate students involved in the PROFESS program run through Drexel’s Center for the Advancement of STEM Teaching and Learning Excellence [CASTLE], so that creates a small network of students within our department who are really interested in supporting each other in their TA role, but very little formal training is coming from the faculty level down.

Phatharodom: We don’t have a formal department training, workshops or anything like that. Usually it depends on the professor that you work with. So then, at the beginning of the semester, you can have one or two meetings that you can get prep on how you’re supposed to run the lab section or how you’re supposed to grade or run the class. It’s not a formal department-wide training.

The other kind of support that I appreciate is every professor that I’ve worked with so far, they’re all really accessible. Whenever I have a question, I can walk into their office and discuss the matter. I think that is very helpful. I also have access to other grad students in my lab that did TAing before and they usually give great advice.

Finger: What do you wish you knew about being a TA before your first class?

Barrett: My first class I ever taught, when I was a sophomore undergrad, I went in and I was really a disciplinarian, really authoritarian. I was very young. I was the same age as the students I was teaching and I didn’t want them to know that. I thought that if they did know that I was so young they wouldn’t take me seriously. I’ve learned since then that getting respect in the classroom has very little to do with being authoritarian or kind of laying down the law and more to do with building rapport with your students through humor and humanization.

I wish back then I had understood better how to garner respect in the classroom and make sure that I was solidifying my role as an authority figure without being so focused on rigid discipline. And I think this is an area where a lot of new TAs get tripped up if they don’t have guidance from more experienced instructors.

Phatharodom: Going into the first class, nobody will actually tell you what to expect in the class. So, in my first class, I believed that the students would be attentive [because] they’re in college, they’re freshmen. Now my understanding of freshmen has totally flipped after the first class. Usually you will hear other people say that teaching freshmen is very hard. Now I can see why.

Clyne: I think that, for me, teaching in the online environment was extremely interesting in the sense that previously my experience was teaching in the classroom. You can actually gauge the level of engagement as you’re working with the group whereby in the online environment you don’t necessarily know exactly how engaged a person is until they submit some work to you.

Finger: What do you do on the first day of the term to create a supportive and exciting learning environment? How do you try to keep in touch with your students throughout the semester?

Clyne: One of the things that we did in starting the course was basically giving a little bit of personal background in allowing for some conversation back and forth regarding that. I think it adds a layer of connectedness to the student that may not have otherwise been there. In terms of ongoing feedback throughout the course, I think in the online environment, certainly email is a really genuine way to really interact even though, at times, it seems like it’s just electronic communication. Students would check in at all different times of the day because of the flexibility of the course. So sending an email to me and then getting a response almost at the same time, I think they also found that to be a way to know that there’s support from faculty, and the TA specifically.

Barrett: I follow a similar routine for pretty much every first class that I teach. I introduce myself and then I have the students go around and introduce themselves. I have them do that because [BIO 207/208] is an active course with a lot of active learning strategies in it, so they need to get used to talking. I usually have them say their preferred name that they want everybody to know them by in class and then also something like their year and their favorite Halloween candy, if it’s the fall term. I try to pick something that I can easily make silly jokes about as they go around and say what their favorite candy is because if I can get everybody laughing they get more engaged.

Once I’ve gotten everybody a little bit comfortable, I have them fill out index cards where they again put down the name they'd like to be called by in class, their year, the pronouns they would like me to use to refer to them so that everybody knows that this is a safe and inclusive environment for students of all different strokes, and a life goal — big or small — so that I can get to know a little bit about who they are as people outside my classroom.

After I do that, I go through the expectations that they can have for me and my expectations I have for them. … I end with, “I know that I’m called your teaching assistant but I prefer to think of myself as your teaching advocate. I’m here to advocate for your success in my class, in this department, as a scholar at Drexel and as a scholar in the world.” And then I end every term by reiterating that I am their teaching advocate. I was their teaching advocate for the last 10 weeks and I will be their teaching advocate going forward, to help them be the most successful students and scholars that they can be.

Phatharodom: It depends on the class. In some classes, you are just doing the grading and you don’t have exposure to interact with the students. It’s very hard to bond with the students in those classes because they never see you apart from your grading comments. But you can still provide some comments while grading that will make it more personal. Maybe you can say something like, “Try better next time,” or “If you have a question, come see me.” There are only certain things you can do in that position. … But in other kinds of class, for instance the lab section where I spend two hours with the students every week, I don’t have a special thing that I do on the first day but I usually start a class with maybe a few minutes asking what they think about the class so far [because] you are a bridge between students and the professor. Outside of class, I sometimes send reminder emails to my students and say “Hey, this assignment is coming up soon, you should start it now.” And then you can put a meme into the email. Students really like the memes.

Finger: How do you handle students who aren’t fulfilling their responsibilities? How do you how do you reach out to them and how do you conquer this?

Phatharodom: If it’s a lab section, I will usually encourage them to work with the person next to them or ask me more questions when I come around and help them more. I may spoon feed them more to start so then, the next class, they kind of hang onto the class and don’t get lost behind. Usually people, when they didn’t follow the first and second class, they kind of give up by the next one. So I do sometimes give them an extra hint or help to complete the assignment, or sometimes even help them code.

Barrett: What I used to do for the first-term freshman lab I used to teach in undergrad, because these are students who often are not used to rigorous academic environments yet and don’t know how to manage their time or their coursework well, is I would meet with each student for the course individually for 15 minutes outside of class and check in with them about how they were doing so far.

Phatharodom: In terms of missing homework, I do reach out to them and I ask, “What's going on? Do you need any help?” So at least by showing that you care and you actually check, they may be more likely to try to do they next one. … But sometimes I feel that reaching out by email is not enough because it doesn’t change the trajectory of the student per see. I have never tried forcing them to meet with the professor yet. Maybe I should.

Barrett: I think the caring is the key bit to all of these comments. If a student feels like you care about them, they’re more likely to care about the material and care about your class.

Finger: How do the specific things about Drexel — the quarter system, co-op, etc. — affect your teaching and your own course work?

Phatharodom: I’ve noticed that co-op actually makes students mature a lot, and the maturity of the student actually matters a lot. You notice the difference between the freshmen and the sophomores who just came back from co-op in the spring. They are so much different in terms of discipline.

Barrett: I definitely agree that even at the sophomore level my pre co-op cohort versus my post co-op cohort for the same class in the same year of school is dramatically different in where their skills already are for this class and also in how dedicated they are to the work and how good of a job they do. They just seem to be better prepared to do work for the classroom even if they perhaps have forgotten some of the content.

Finger: So what about the feedback that you get from your students? Do you ever survey them? What do you usually hear and do with that feedback?

Phatharodom: It is kind of hard to get the feedback. I sometimes actually make a survey on Blackboard to ask students how they like the class so far during midterms. Only a few students will answer, and I don’t ask questions specifically about myself, but instead for suggestions for how the class is run. However, I do read over the AEFIS evaluation system. It is kind of narcissistic in the way, but I do feel happy when students say that I did well. Teaching is like performing in a way. And it’s a mixed signal sometimes. Sometimes they complain, sometimes students say it’s good. You will get different kinds of feedback from them.

Clyne: I have found a process where every interaction I have with a student at the end of the interaction, or sometimes there after within a day or so I’ll check in and say, “What did you think of our interaction? Did you find it beneficial? Is there something I could have done more or is there something I can still do to help you facilitate your learning?” I actually found that to be an excellent way to really improve myself and my own processes, but also I have found it beneficial to the students.

Barrett: We do, for each of the courses, a self-reflection at the end of the term. There are one-page responses to five different questions about each of the skills that we ask them to learn and improve upon in the course.

I find that that’s a good metacognitive exercise for the students to realize that they have actually improved over the course of the 10-week term, incrementally. I also think it’s a great place to get feedback on the course because you can tease out what’s working based on what [activities] they said really improved their learning.

Finger: Has your TA experience inspired you to pursue a career in academia, or has it turned out that you’d rather not teach?

Clyne: I have a clinical background and I work in a hospital setting and I have taught adjunct in the past. I have found this experience at Drexel University to be quite rewarding, and it

actually made me want to pursue more of an educational role in the future. I am completing my doctorate and I hope that, once I do complete it, I would take a much more active role in academia.

Phatharodom: My current conclusion is that I want to change to the way that we revise the material, because I notice that TAs come and go every few years. So, you have a new grad student, you train them so well, and then after that they move on in order to do something else. However what actually stays in the class is the material or the medium itself. I think what I want to do is to make sure that we have a system that we revise and continuously improve on the material.

Barrett: I started out teaching in undergrad, and I started out doing it just to make some money to buy some textbooks. Didn’t think I would like it or dislike it, but it would just be a way to earn some cash. And I absolutely fell in love with teaching. So much so that I was dead set on going to medical school when I entered undergrad and after my first term teaching I was dead set on doing some research so that I could go and get my PhD and become a professor. So absolutely I think the experience of getting to facilitate other people’s understandings of my discipline not only furthered my love for my discipline but also totally changed my career trajectory. Every time I step foot in the classroom I feel like I just am solidifying my decision that I picked the right path.

Finger: If you could offer advice to a new teaching assistant in your department what would it be?

Phatharodom: It’s not going to be perfect. Dirty job done right [laughs].

Clyne: I think I would say just jump in the fire. You have to just experience it. Once I stepped in the fire, I truly found a passion for it.

Barrett: I think being honest with your students is also really important. It goes along with not being perfect. We are also people with lives and as we make these materials it’s OK to tell students, “This is the first time I’ve implemented this worksheet in class. I'd really love your feedback on it.” That level of honesty gives students some more control in the classroom.

Nominate TAs making a positive impact at Drexel for the annual Teaching Assistant Excellence Awards by April 19.