Documentation:Guide to Teaching for New Faculty at UBC/Resource 7: Working with TA's

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As new faculty, part of your responsibilities may involve working with TAs for one or more of your courses. This chapter is meant to help you establish and maintain a strong professional relationship with the Teaching Assistants you will be working with. We will review the existing professional standards around TAs at UBC, provide a few strategies for structuring the working relationship, and address a few frequently asked questions and concerns.

Overview of Requirements

You can find out more about TA rights and responsibilities on campus by reviewing the Collective Agreement negotiated between the University and the TA Union. The document is available online at: http://www.cupe2278.ca/

There are a few key points that are worth paying close attention to as an instructor working with TAs.

TA Classifications

TAs are classified according to 4 types, each with different responsibilities and pay rates. It is important that you know whether your TA is a GTA (graduate TA), a UTA (undergraduate TA) or a Marker, as these positions can have different responsibilities associated with them:

  • GTA I or II
    These are TAs that are currently registered in Graduate Programs. A GTA I is graduate student who holds a Master’s degree or is registered in a Doctoral degree program, while a GTA II holds a Bachelor’s degree or is registered in a Master’s degree program.
  • UTA
    These are TAs who are currently registered in an undergraduate degree program.
  • Marker
    This is an employee whose only job responsibilities include objective (“keytype”) marking duties.

As an instructor, it is especially important that markers not be assigned anything other than objective, answer-key type marking assignments. It can also be helpful to know whether your TA is working with their peers (if they are a UTA working in an undergrad class, for example).

TA Working Hours

TAs are assigned a specific number of hours to work per term, and there are some constraints on how their time can be used during the term. A Full TA-ship is 384 hours, or 192 hours per term. These 192 hours include 8 hours of paid vacation, and 6 hours of paid sick leave per term. This amounts to an average of 12 hours of work per week. TA-ships can also be fractional (0.5 TA-ship, 0.25 TA-ship), in which case vacation and sick leave are proportionally reduced.

Any work the TA does for a course is included in the calculation of hours worked. This includes class preparation, attending lectures, training, marking, leading tutorials, and meeting with students and the instructor. Once the number of hours for the term has been met, the TA must either be paid for additional hours, or no longer be required to work. If a TA takes sick leave, it is not their responsibility to find a replacement.

TAs cannot be required to work during times that overlap with scheduled course work, nor within 24 hours of the TA’s own examinations, including comprehensive exams or a dissertation defense.

Framing the TA Relationship

All TAs must receive a job description, which includes the course number and title, required qualifications, the general nature of duties, and the estimated hours of work allocated for each duty. You should include all of the work that the TA will be doing for the course – including things like lecture attendance (if required) and meetings with the instructor, reading assignments, grading, office hours, etc. This document can be a helpful tool for you to frame the TA-Instructor relationship, by specifically spelling out expectations and ensuring that TAs are working an appropriate amount of time on appropriate tasks. A few important questions for you to consider in generating the job description include:

  • Is all work that will be expected of the TA included in the job description? Things like lecture attendance, course readings, holding office hours, and meetings must also be included if they are required for the TA to perform their work.
  • Is the amount of time assigned for each duty realistic? It is important to remember that new TAs may do certain tasks – such as grading – less quickly than experienced TAs.
  • Is the TA aware of the level of work that will be required of them in the course, and has appropriate time been set aside?

Providing a clear job description with well-defined duties can help you to set expectations, and can help in developing a successful relationship. You can also use it to signal to the TA a clear understanding of the time commitment that will be expected – especially when time commitments are uneven. While TAs should expect an average of 12 hours per week (for a full TA-ship), this time may be distributed in vastly different ways. It is not uncommon for a TA’s workload to have more demanding time commitments after major exams or papers, and less at other times. Knowing this ahead of time can help the TA to plan appropriately around his or her own coursework.

Reviewing course duties is also an opportunity for you to offer your TA additional support and mentoring. TAs may need guidance for tasks such as marking, leading tutorials or labs – especially of they are new to TAing. While there are resources available to TAs on campus to help with these tasks (see below), as an instructor, you will be able to give immediate guidance that suits the needs and expectations of your course.

Things You Can Do to Help Your TA

After you have generated a job description and discussed it with your TA, there are a few additional things that can be done to help maintain a good working relationship:

  • Prepare Grading Rubrics – Grading rubrics can highlight both the elements to be evaluated, and different levels of evaluation for an assignment. Grading rubrics can help the TA with what they should be looking for in an assignment, as well as the standard of performance against which the students should be evaluated.
  • Check in with your TA – Checking in can give TAs who are encountering difficulties or who have questions an opportunity to discuss them with you. This is especially helpful in signalling to TAs that there is an always an option to discuss things further. Establishing this climate is important since some TAs may not feel comfortable bringing up challenges they are encountering on their own. This can also be an opportunity to discuss things that are both going well as well as those that are still a challenge.
  • Discuss Student Contact and Time Management – Student contact can quickly consume TA hours if expectations are not carefully communicated to the TA and the students in the course. E-mail, in particular, can consume a great deal of time unless limits are placed on how and when students can expect replies to e-mail (one possibility is that course-related e-mails are only answered during office hours). This policy should be communicated to students, who might otherwise expect responses to e-mails on the same day they are sent.
  • Clarify Course and University Policies – Policies that may impact TAs should be identified beforehand and communicated to the TA before the course begins, to avoid potential difficulties. A few important points to be clear about:
    • Grading Disputes – Students may come to you to dispute a grade assigned to them by the TA for an assignment. It is important to be clear about a consistent procedure for these cases. Will you change the student’s grade without discussing this with the TA? Will students be required to talk to the TA before talking with you for a grade change? A clear and consistent policy communicated to both your students and your TA can avoid potential difficulties.
    • Academic Dishonesty – What should a TA do if they discover or suspect academic dishonesty in an assignment? Be sure to consult with university-wide (see Policy #85), as well as departmental policies (if any) regarding academic honesty.
    • Communication – How can the TA contact you, and what sort of response time can they typically expect? How can you contact the TA, and what sort of response time can you expect?
  • Encourage Your TA to Track Hours Worked – You are not responsible for keeping track of hours for your TA. If your TA keeps track of hours and keeps you informed, potential difficulties can be avoided (such as running out of hours for the term before the term ends). Once a TA reaches their total number of worked hours for the term, additional hours will need to be negotiated, or else the TA must stop working (while continuing to get paid to the fulfillment of their hours already worked).

Non-Performance

Framing the TA relationship with a clear job description and an early face-to-face meeting where mutual expectations are made clear and understood by both parties can do a great deal to avoid difficulties in the working relationship. However, in some cases, you may encounter a TA who is not performing their duties as expected. When possible, you should try to resolve these difficulties through discussion, clarification of expected standards, and perhaps providing additional support where appropriate. However, when this does not work, it may become necessary to appeal to formal structures to address non-performance issues.

Discussing Non-Performance

When possible, you should try to work with the TA to come to a satisfactory conclusion to any non-performance issue. Sometimes, non-performance issues are the result of miscommunication or a misunderstanding around job criteria or the work associated with those criteria. If there is a performance issue, it is usually best to discuss the challenge with the TA directly. A few questions and considerations to keep in mind are:

  • Is the TA clear about what is expected of her/him? There may be a difference in understanding around expectations that can easily be cleared up.
  • Does the TA have all of the materials or equipment needed to meet job expectations?
  • Is an appropriate amount of time being allocated for each task, either in the job description, or in the TA’s calendar?
  • Is the challenge due to insufficient preparation or information?
  • Are the tasks required of the TA consistent with what was agreed to in the job description?
  • Is there some procedural improvement, or “trick of the trade,” that the TA may be unaware of that could help improve performance?

When offering feedback to your TA, it can be helpful to frame it in terms of things that you would like or prefer that they do, rather than criticism of what they are doing. In this way, improvement can be managed as a co-operative task and as a part of your mentoring relationship with the TA. Eg. “How can we allocate time so that marked assignments are returned within two weeks?,” rather than “You haven’t been returning marked assignments quickly enough.” Approaching feedback in a constructive way is usually much more successful in bringing about change, rather than triggering defensive or resistant responses.

Reprimands and Discipline

Should informal, directive feedback be insufficient to address nonperformance or other issues, there are formal reprimand and disciplinary procedures in place, as outlined in the TA Union contract. A formal reprimand is a written expression of dissatisfaction with some aspect of a TA’s job performance. A reprimand is attached to the TA’s file for 2 years under ordinary circumstances (unless it becomes part of a disciplinary action).

  • Any written reprimand or formal discipline must be discussed with the TA, the instructor, the department head, and a Union representative, if the TA desires.
  • The TA must be advised that a Union rep may be present for any formal reprimand procedures.

Opportunities for TA Training

There are numerous professional development opportunities for TA training on campus at UBC. Many departments have instituted internal TA training workshops and/or peer mentoring that are available to new or experienced Teaching Assistants, funded through the Office of the Vice Provost. Departments lacking programs are invited to apply for funding, and assistance in developing programs can be found at the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology (CTLT).

The Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology also provides workshops and seminars for graduate students who would like to improve their teaching skills. The Instructional Skills Workshop (ISW) and Presentation Skills Workshop (PSW) are available to all graduate students at UBC for no cost. CTLT also offers peer coaching and shorter 3-hour seminars for graduate students on a number of teaching and learning related topics.

For more information, please visit CTLT’s website: http://www.ctlt.ubc.ca

For Graduate Student Programming and TA Training info: http://ctlt.ubc.ca/programs/graduate-student-ta-programs/