The Roles, Rights and Responsibilities of being a TA

Author: Rebecca Tallman (Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology)

The role of the teaching assistant (TA) is multi-dimensional. In part this is why being a TA is so challenging, however it is also the reason why being a TA is so exciting. As a TA you are constantly navigating the boundaries between teacher, student and supervisor and you are often left juggling your own research, course work, and TA responsibilities. But at the end of the day, you have the opportunity to share your passion with university students at all stages of life. To me, this is the most important and exciting part about being a teaching assistant. The purpose of this manual is to provide you with the tools necessary to navigate your new role as a teaching assistant. Before you dive in, it is important to first address your roles, rights and responsibilities as a TA.

One of the biggest challenges you will face in your graduate school experience is what we like to call “imposter syndrome”. The feeling that you do not belong here or that you are not qualified to be in the position you are in. Many TAs face similar experiences when they begin teaching in a university classroom for the first time. If you have this feeling, you are not alone. We have all felt like this at one time or another during our graduate degree or TA experience. The important thing to remember is that you were selected to be a teaching assistant for a reason. You can be confident in the fact that you already have a degree in your area of teaching and if you don’t you have a supervisor to guide you through the teaching process. It is also important to remember that you are not alone. The best thing you can do is to find a buddy. Whether it is a fellow TA, graduate student, or your partner, the best thing you can do to keep yourself balanced is to have someone you can talk to about your experiences and the challenges that you may be facing. As a TA you have a specific role to fill but you also have the right to not be overworked or overwhelmed. Remember, your graduate work should come first.

Knowing your roles, rights and responsibilities is important. They can help you navigate your new title as a teaching assistant, more importantly they can provide you with the knowledge you will need to deal with difficult situations.

As an employee of the University and a representative of your respective program, you have the right to:1  

  • Expect fair and consistent treatment.
  • Feel safe.
  • Only be asked to conduct work within the parameters of your contract and workload agreement.
  • Be informed of the expected workload and have a clear understanding of your role.
  • Expect compliance with the provisions of your appointment.
  • Be able to say ‘no’ to work that is not part of your agreement.
  • Expect the protection of university policies and have the responsibility to adhere to the same policies.
  • Expect to have your performance evaluated by students and by the course instructor.

When you are interacting with students both inside and outside of the classroom, you have the responsibility to: 

  • Maintain a positive and professional environment by being friendly, non-threatening and respectful.
  • Use appropriate teaching methods and techniques.
  • Evaluate student work on-time and fairly (i.e. have an objective marking mechanism, keep records as evidence, maintain a distance to remain unbiased).
  • Set boundaries so that harassment of any type is not an issue.
  • Make your expectations clear.
  • Be on time for meetings and available during posted office hours.
  • Be aware of your own biases and do not force your opinions on your students.

And finally, your role as a teaching assistant is three fold: 

  1. Working with students (directly or indirectly): 
    • Be prepared; read background material in order to be prepared for student’s questions.
    • Listen carefully to the questions and statements of your students and respond accurately and honestly.
    • Do not overstate your knowledge. Indicate when you do not know the answer to a question and then agree to find the answer before the next meeting.
    • Admit to errors if they occur and correct them promptly.
    • Create a safe space for students to learn.
  2. Working with your Faculty Supervisor: 
    • Discuss with the faculty member exactly what your duties will be for the course, negotiate meeting times and deadlines.
    • Be reliable and do what you indicated that you will do.
    • Be familiar with the content of the text book and course outline.
    • Be responsible for your actions and admit your mistakes.
    • Give feedback when needed, even if it is negative.
    • Maintain constant contact with the course instructor.
    • Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you need clarity on the expectations your instructor has given you.
  3. As a graduate student: 
    • Make regular progress with your own research and course work.
    • Create and follow timelines for all of your academic responsibilities, this should include the time required to be a successful teaching assistant.

This manual will expand on your role, rights and responsibilities as a TA. It will guide you through the technical aspects of your new job and provide you with tools you can use in your classroom. We hope that you will use it as a resource for your own teaching and that it will help you to shape own teaching philosophy.

If you require any further support, please contact the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology.

Congratulations on your new position as a teaching assistant!

1 Roles, Rights and Responsibilities adapted from “Rights, Responsibilities and Roles of a Teaching Assistant” written by Dr. Robert Tait in The Teaching Assistant Manual 2006 Edition.