Finding the best individuals for the work of Teaching Assistants is fundamental, but not sufficient. Faculty need to build capacity in their TAs, and can do so effectively through the sharing of their own philosophies of teaching, the consistent refinement of TAs knowledge and skills, and the engagement of TAs in creating a shared legacy of their teaching and learning community.
Share Your Pedagogy
Cultivate a team culture and a team identity that are rooted in your teaching philosophy by sharing your practices, your principles, and your objectives with your teaching assistants.
Mastery of anything requires an understanding not just of what one does, but why one does it. Successful teaching teams share a sense of purpose in the courses they teach, as well as a sense of purpose in their teaching practice. To build this shared knowledge and understanding every member of the team needs to know more than just content, logistics, and methods, they need to understand the philosophy underlying all of these things.
- Think about your purpose and your practice: Marshall Ganz starts by thinking about the course and the pedagogy. He suggests that faculty think first about "what it is they're trying to teach and how they think about their pedagogy." This, according to Ganz, should then inform their work with and their training of teaching assistants.
- Practice pedagogy: Brian Mandell makes teaching the focus of training. Over the course of two weeks of intensive training before the start of class, he frames the course and his teaching practice and then he has teaching assistants practice facilitating and debriefing using this pedagogy.
- Be transparent: Marshall Ganz immerses his teaching assistants in his pedagogy and his principles over the course of over two days of training. But, he suggests that immersion is not enough - exposure is a necessity. "We do a whole thing on pedagogy where we try and be really transparent – about why we’re teaching, what we’re teaching, and the way we’re teaching.”
Make training a continuous process.
Deep learning requires sustained thought, practice, and reflection. Experiential learning is rooted in the reflective process and to be successful it requires continual reflection not just on the part of students, but on the part of the teaching team. Teaching assistants must be trained in reflection, but they must also practice reflecting upon their work and that of their team. This kind of training cannot be done in a single moment, but must be consistently and continuously supported over time.
- Meet regularly: All of the faculty we spoke with meet regularly with their teaching teams throughout the course of their teaching terms. Ron Heifetz suggests that regular meetings are an essential part of his teaching assistants' development as educators and professionals. "I spend an hour and a half with [my teaching assistants] before every class and another hour with them after....What I'm having them do doesn't lend itself to a single preparatory workshop...because the work is so tailored to each – student, I think the only way to train them is longitudinally."
- Debrief: For Jorrit de Jong and Ron Heifetz, reflecting on the teaching experience is just as important as reflecting on the learning experience. Teaching assistants, in particular, benefit from the process of actively considering and critiquing their own work in partnership with their peers. According to de Jong, his teaching assistants "help each other because they know and understand [each other's] work." This allows them to "make observations and develop questions" that support and advance each other's thinking and practice.
Build a Shared Legacy
Create materials (documents, videos, etc.) that gather and record the collective insights of past teaching assistants and share them with future generations.
History is a valuable source of wisdom. When exceptional knowledge can be gathered from the past, there is no need to reinvent the wheel in the future. Collecting, recording, and maintaining artifacts from past teaching assistants gives each new cohort a resource to draw knowledge, ideas, and experiences from and faculty a record to reflect upon how the course has evolved.
- Develop training documents: All of the faculty we spoke with use some form of curated documentation to support their work with and their training of teaching assistants. Karen Brennan's training documents for her renowned experiential course T550 – Designing for Learning by Creating – provide incoming teaching assistants with all of the fundamental information for the course and their role in it "because as a student, you don’t see everything that your teaching assistant is doing, so [we] try and make this visible."
- Teaching assistants & editors: At the end of each term, Marshall Ganz's, Ron Heifetz's, and Karen Brennan's teaching assistants reflect upon what they have learned and what they can share with future teaching assistants by editing and adding to their respective course's teaching assistant manuals. Brennan describes how her teaching assistants "go through all of the documentation [and think about] rebooting for next year. Everything is iterative, so we take everything as input for next time."