The [not-so-]secret benefit of the ‘stupid’ TA

I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to be a better TA and how to interact with both my professor and students better. With that being said, the professor I work for is fairly opinionated about what TAs should and should not know. Sometimes I find my recall isn’t perfect; I don’t remember every detail of the course. Sometimes the professor comes close to rolling their eyes at my recall, or lack thereof.

However, I think this is a benefit. I think this allows me to see ‘holes’ in student understanding and address them more effectively. For many topics, I can discuss the lack of student understanding with more familiarity than the professor, despite their multi-semester experience. Sometimes its helpful to simplify the professor’s plan to focus more challenging points. And sometimes its very helpful to point out easy pitfalls in both calculations and understanding. Generally, my professor doesn’t really mind my snafus, since they usually happen in their office when we are discussing student assignments prior to dissemination. They would be severely annoyed [rightly so!] if I was perpetuating incorrect information during recitation sections.

However, there are other professors that aren’t so generous. One of my colleagues is currently teaching for a professor who decided they were frustrated with their ‘stupid TAs.’ So the TAs were unexpectedly given the exam during the exam period, instead of their normal proctoring responsibilities.

Now I’m not saying I don’t think the TAs should be capable of taking an exam for the class they are teaching, but I do have a problem with the goal of this exercise, which was to catch a TA demonstrating less than brilliance. One of the TAs did do poorly on the exam, and that TA needs to work harder for mastery of the material. However, having a meeting in which the professor berates the TA for answering incorrectly is completely unproductive.

I think a better way to handle a lackluster TA would be to focus on the necessity of preparation. That has certainly helped me develop my teaching over the last few semesters. Facilitating correct preparation would increase the TAs ability to work as an advocate for both students and the professor. Even something so simple as giving notice that TAs would be expected to take the exam prior to students would be sufficient to increase general preparation. I realize (although I have no direct experience), some people care so little about teaching that no amount of professor intervention will cause a satisfactory outcome, but attempting to use humiliation to facilitate performance often fails. As my recall sometimes fails me, I often spend a significant time preparing my notes prior to teaching. The extra time is well spent, because I rarely mislead my students.

Anyways, I think its beneficial to have a TA who does not immediately recall every detail of the course, because it provides the teaching team with the opportunity to reexamine complex concepts and teach students more effectively. Sometimes I worry this idea is just a way my brain convinces me that I am not stupid. Either way, I am constantly striving to increase my knowledge base while maintaining my memories of which concepts were difficult and why I had trouble.

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