How to become a teaching assistant

Teaching assistant

Teacher training (© Corey R. Minkanic/AP Images)

If you love to learn and enjoy helping your fellow students, why not think about becoming a teaching assistant (TA)? A TA works under a professor’s supervision to assist students in the classroom. You’d be lending a hand to professors in a class you have already taken and understand well so you can give guidance to other students who are in the position you once were in. Discover all the duties of a TA, ways to become a teaching assistant and how assistantship gives you experience to advance your academic career.

But is it cool to be a TA?

Don’t think that being a TA is a lame job for suck-ups who want to get brownie points on their academic record. Some very cool people have begun distinguished careers as a teaching assistant and you’d be in good company. Pineapple Express actor and academic James Franco, expressed interest in becoming a TA while obtaining a Ph.D in English at Yale University. In “James Franco to Teach Yale Students,” writer Josh Duboff reported in on May 3, 2010 that Franco said, “I love school. […] I go to school because I love being around people who are interested in what I’m interested in and I’m having a great experience. […] I’m studying things that I love so it’s not like it’s a chore.”

Teaching assistant job description

Teaching assistants, also known as teacher assistants, should be:

  • In good academic standing
  • Familiar with how a classroom works and how professors teach
  • A “people person” who is comfortable working with and advising peers
  • Encouraging, patient and upbeat

For example, the University of Maryland provides a Teaching Assistant Handbook for those who want to work in the Department of Computer Science. According to the book’s roles and responsibilities, the TA:

  • Reinforces basic lecture material
  • Emphasizes relevance of course content
  • Answers questions
  • Encourages student enthusiasm and initiative in course work
  • Directs students to additional resources
  • Counsels students
  • Maintains records

What makes a good TA?

Another TA task is to attend all lectures and take accurate notes. Students will often ask a TA what they missed if they were not able to attend a class. Additionally, the TA may set up discussion sessions or study groups outside of class to go over material that may need a bit of extra clarification.

TAs should also be professional in appearance and demeanor. They should dress in business casual, face the students (not the chalkboard or PowerPoint) when they speak to the class, be expressive when they talk and be confident in what they’re saying. Often TAs conduct several classes entirely on their own during a semester.

How to become a TA

Ask your college counselor if there are openings in your school. Educational requirements to become a TA vary in different states and school districts. Applicants generally need at least two yeas of college or equivalent associate’s degree, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

According to the BLS’s “How to Become a Teacher Assistant,” “Schools may provide training for teacher assistants to acquaint them with the school district and school policies. […] Teacher assistants must familiarize themselves with the material their students are covering in class. Doing so may require reviewing the topics with teachers to ensure that the assistants understand and can properly explain the information to students.”

Teacher assistant programs

Here are some places online to look for teaching assistant and teacher’s aide programs:

TAP, the Teaching Assistant Project at Rutgers, offers numerous workshops and certificate programs that help graduate students become more effective teachers. Rutgers was one of the first universities to offer a comprehensive TA training program that boosts graduate students’ skills and confidence and leads to better instruction for undergraduates.

A TA position is indeed a fantastic opportunity. However, the economic downturn has strained the ability of some students to get graduate teaching assistant jobs. “These days, due to tight budgets and a slow academic job market, there’s more competition for them,” wrote Ann Carns in “Graduate Teaching Jobs Harder to Find,” an August 3, 2011 post to “Tight budgets have caused even some highly selective programs to shrink, meaning fewer doctoral students are admitted in the first place — especially in the humanities.” If you can get one of the coveted spots, a teaching assistant salary would cover a fair amount of tuition and other expense. reveals the salaries TAs make at several colleges.

So now that you’ve learned a little bit more about life as a TA, what do you think — to TA or not to TA?

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