(I apologize to Nick Hornby for stealing the title of his novel for this post)
I’ve been a teaching assistant (TA, from now on) for almost 5 years; 3 of those in Buenos Aires, and the other 2 here in East Lansing. I’ve certainly improved over time, but I know there’s still much room for improvement.
By the end of each semester, the students have to complete an evaluation form for each instructor they have had in their classes. These forms have two parts: one with “questions” about the TA, where they have to bubble in their answers; the second part is for their comments. They complete the form anonymously, and we get these back after the semester is over.
I got my forms for last semester back on Friday. I don’t pay much attention to the statistics of those; I just read their comments. This time I got more comments than the previous semesters. That looked like a good sign: I had certainly made an impact, right?
I taught three different sections last semester, and had a total of 50ish students. Many of them (I’d like to say 20, but it’s probably more like 15) were really happy with my performance. They said I’d helped them a lot, and I’d made the concepts much clearer, and I’d been helpful and approachable. Woo hoo!
As you can imagine, that is not the reason for this post. There were some students (again, I’d like to say 8, but they were probably more like 12… I should count the students in both groups on Monday) that were really unhappy with me. Their comments are the ones that motivate this post.
I’m not gonna talk about the pedantic kid who listed my “lack of English skills” and “thick accent” (okay, he’s probably right about the latter) as part of my problems. That’s just a resentful one. I’m concerned about those who said I’m rude.
One of my students said that it took a while to get used to my strong personality and teaching style. Wow, strong personality? I took that as a compliment; I tend to see myself as a people-pleaser. Hmmm… maybe my strong personality shows up when I’m given some authority? I’m not sure I like that. That would make me an insecure little person, that can get mean when given some power, right? I certainly dislike that. Well, at least it gives me something to think about.
But I digress here. Let’s get back to those who said I’m rude. I don’t want to discuss whether they are right or not; they felt that way, therefore there has to be at least some truth to their words. Time for some self-criticism. I know I try to be nice and approachable, but I also know I tend to get impatient with some students. I’d like to say it isn’t about how much they now, but how they are; I’d like to say I’m rude to those students who aren’t polite either. But that sounds like an excuse. And we are not talking about regular social interactions (I think I’m OK at those, not great, but OK); we are talking about the way I treat my students.
In order to be a good TA, I have to encourage all my students to ask questions, not only those that for some reason I like. I know I can’t like all of them, but I should act as if I did. And that gets us back to the title: How to be good? How to act as if I liked all of them? How not to lose my politeness when an arrogant student asks me what I consider a stupid question? You see? I did it again: it doesn’t matter if the student is arrogant or not. That is their problem, and not mine. And I shouldn’t care about that when I’m teaching, should I? And I need to remember that NO question is stupid (not so sure about this, though… oh, crap! I’m doing it again).
These evaluation forms have gotten me to my New Semester Resolution: I need to become a better TA, not (only) in the academic aspect, but in the “social” one. I’ll have to remind myself that there are no stupid questions, and that it is OK for students to not know/understand something that seems easy for me (that is part of the reason I’m teaching them, right?). I’ll have to learn how to be more patient and approachable. And at the same time, it has to seem natural, not something I’m forcing myself to do.
New Semester? Bring it on!