In order to leverage Teaching Assistants in the service of rich experiential learning, it is crucial to seek and select the right individuals for the role. Three strategies for doing so are looking for qualities beyond content knowledge, promoting diversity of backgrounds and perspectives, and prioritizing prior experience.
Look Beyond Knowledge
Select teaching assistants for their motivation, their commitment, and their emotional intelligence, not just their content knowledge.
Selecting the smartest person doesn't guarantee that you are selecting the right person for the job. As Professor Brian Mandell suggests, "being wickedly smart is a necessary but insufficient condition for success." Teaching assistants need to know the content of the course, but they must also have the emotional capacity to support themselves and the students through the intense and sometimes taxing processes of experiential learning. This requires empathy, self-confidence, leadership, flexibility, and - above all - commitment.
- Look for personal balance: Jorrit de Jong looks for teaching assistants who bring a "balance between cognition and attitude...[between] the emotional, political, and social skills they engage in a process of change in the real world....The best teaching assistants get that and are comfortable and skilled at pushing back to [students]."
- Look for desire & capacity to lead: Marshall Ganz and Brian Mandell both look for teaching assistants who are motivated to teach and to learn. They also seek out individuals who have the capacity to lead their peers and to enable their learning. These motives and characteristics are the first qualities Ganz looks for in a teaching assistant. He suggests that first and foremost "this [must be] something they really want to learn, something they really want to do...[because] this isn't just a job."
- Avoid defensiveness: Ron Heifetz stresses the importance of selecting teaching assistants who aren't prone to defensiveness. "Teaching assistants are in a supervisory relationship with students...[and they must] be ready – to take on a role of authority knowing that often accompanying a role of authority is grief and not just deferential respect. [They] need to be able to step back, even if it stings, get through the sting and keep [their] eye on the job."
Build a diverse teaching team by looking for teaching assistants of different genders, races, ages, sexualities, religions, and nationalities, who bring varied sets of skills, attitudes, knowledge, and experiences.
The maxim 'where you sit determines what you see' is a general truth of experiential learning. Perspective plays a powerful role in shaping how both individuals and the collective see, hear, sense, feel, and ultimately interpret the information they are presented with. To support this kind of immersive whole person and whole group learning, a teaching team - to the extent that it is possible - needs to be able to understand and engage with each of the different perspectives in their class.
- Look for balance: Ron Heifetz tries to strike a balance between various attributes and abilities in his teaching team. "I try to strike a 50/50 balance of genders if I can and I want people from across different countries and sexual preferences because I want people to be able to connect with all the different worlds that are in the classroom."
- Look for adaptability: Karen Brennan notes that "some [students] come in and they know what they want to do and they are really focused and great at self-management and then you get students" who have little understanding of what they want or what they need. "Teaching assistants, need to be able to respond to both...[they need] to be able to listen...[and] understand [each student] in ways that they may not yet understand themselves." They need to adapt to the needs of their students.
Recruit and select teaching assistants from your pool of previous students.
Knowledge gained by experience is invaluable. Individuals who have previously taken a course are uniquely prepared to support its teaching, compared with those who have never experienced the course, its contents, or its pedagogy. According to Professor Karen Brennan, experience is one of the most valuable assets a teaching assistant can have, particularly in courses with experiential learning. "It's a very different type of pedagogy than [many students have] ever experienced...[and] there are just things you understand about the culture and what we're trying to do - because [you have] experienced it."
- Use your classroom as an observatory: Karen Brennan and Brian Mandell both use time in the classroom to observe their students and they keep a special eye out for those students who exhibit the blend of knowledge, skills, and attitude that they are looking for in their teaching assistants. Those who catch their attention, may be gently recruited by themselves or their current teaching assistants.
- Gather recommendations: Karen Brennan leverages the knowledge and experience of her current teaching assistants to support and inform her recruitment and selection of future teaching assistants. "We care a lot about fit among team members. So we actually do a bit of recommendation – at the end of each term. We ask [current teaching assistants] "if you had to bring someone in next year, who would [be] some of your favorites?"