That is the question! Okay, it might not be the most important question that you will ask yourself, but it should be one you ought to ask yourself. When I first decided to take a teaching assistant with me to Dublin and then to Spain professors, colleagues and graduate students immediately jumped to comments like “They’re lucky!” “Wow! Great
opportunity” or “How do I get that opportunity?” But nobody asked me “What will your TA do there? ” or “Why do you need a TA for this program?” My colleagues at UIC Study Abroad Officie initially quried my request but when they saw the design of the program and the intensity of the work they backed me 100%!
First, let me outline my reasons for having a TA work with me (See Arin’s blogs to get a sense of her role as the TA for the two courses she has assisted).
- I wanted the students to get the necessary 1 on 1 attention that supports personal and academic growth and development.
- The program needed to documented and summarized. I create academic experiences not classes and I wanted the experience captured so that students could keep track better of what we did in class and in the field.
- Arin became a double major in Kinesiology and Education. I was her graduate mentor and supervisor. I knew she had teaching skills because she had taught, she was prepared to design, teach and evaluate education programs because of her learning in the UIC College of Education and her work in our department over a three period. She had content knowledge, teaching skills and a great work ethic. Therefore I knew she would contribute and would help lift the program up.
- I needed a sounding board and someone who worked with me and would give me an alternative view to the one I had. I learned the wisdom of having a TA like this from a former mentor of mine, Professor Don Hellison. Who treated me like this.
- I needed an activity and material coordinator. For example, I knew I would need Arin to work with our Dublin liaison to help get the materials, have thems delivered and set up a photography gallery and tear it down in the same day. I was focused on other aspects of this and Arin met the need that day.
- Having a TA meant students could work in small groups and they can be mentored. Study abroad can be stressful enough, and most students are not exprienced in ongoing project based learning nor spend multiple days working with a TA or a faculty on a significant piece of work. Having a competent TA helping deliver the program and create what Dee Fink calls significant learning experiences in my view is essential, or do not bring one with you.
- I expect to provide feedback to students work within 48-72 hours. With a TA I could share the load.
- I never put final authority for grades in the hands of a TA. This in my view is not fair on them because they are not responsible for the course. I am. Therefore we cross check our assessments and I handle disputes as they arise. If there is a student issue I take responsibility for it and take that off of Arin’s shoulders. This allows her to be a student mentor and coach without the authory of final grades. But the point is that students get rapid feedback and improvement is ongoing. In the programs I lead, assessment and feedback is shared and it is a team game. I show what feedback required and how it should be delivered via a rubric. The content belongs to the TA.
- I like having someone to have a laugh with professionally. Arin and I know each other well. Our relationship is seven years old. She has great stories, good inisghts and I have respected her work ethic since we met. She shares a passion for teaching and working towards doing the best possible things we can do in our context for students. Of course, we have bumped heads but this is normal and things are talked out and quickly reset. It is to the benefit of the students and me that Arin and I work well and can have a laugh together.
Now then, part two of this piece. If you are thinking of taking a TA there are some guidelines I feel should be be followed before deciding to take a TA.
- Character counts! If you have doubt about their honesty, trustworthiness, work ethic and reliability do not take then with you. You have to have 100% faith in the character. If you have any doubts about your trust in them. Do not take them on your program.
- Beware aproaches from graduate students seeking a position in your program. If you identify a TA you might not know well use a screening interview at least and get references from poeple you trust. I recommend you idenify your own TA based on your criteria for the best fit.
- Select a TA who has some knowledge, skills and competencies that will add to the studente experience and to your leadership of the program.
- Draw up a role description and review it with them. If they balk at it, listen to see if you are being unreasonable. If you are being unreasonable consider modifying the role. If you are not. Do not take the TA. Teaching Assistant Responsibilities. Barca 2016.V1
- Establish your personal and professional boundaries. If you do not want to socialize with your TA and you cannot hold a conversation because you feel compelled to be “professional” all the time consider not taking a TA. If you are not ready to be vulnerable with your TA avoid making it awkward for both of you. Study abroad programming means being engaged with your colleagues, students and your TA. Things can be stressful and you might be in situations caused by personal and professional challenges. For example, my Mum was very ill and in another country from where we were based. I had to organize a variety of programming options in case I had to leave due to her rapidly faltering condition. This meant engaging Arin and our program partners in my decision-making about the program. Hopefully this does not happen to you. I had faith Arin would be alright because of her qualities and chacteristics outlined above.
- Stay out of your TA’s personal life unless you have established the boundaries with them. Do not go into their personal quarters. It is their space. Stay out of it.
- If you are seeking a “coffee maker” buy a machine. If you are seeking someone to do the teaching jobs you do not want to do, study abroad might not be for you. It is an added expense in a variety of ways to bring a TA . Make your own copies!
- Give your TA as much authority as they can cope with. Stretch them and see how far they can go by using the study abroad program as an opportunity to grow and develop too.
- Take early opportunities to get to know your TA. Recognize their strengths and how they can contribute to the students and you. See guideline 5.
It seems usual for study abroad faculty not to take a TA. For me, I see the TA role as integral to the wellbeing of the students, program and my effectiveness for the kind of program I prefer to lead.