I start my graduate program next week, which includes spending some of my time as a Teaching Assistant. It is my least favorite part of job, and I do not want to teach in my career after that. I don't want to become professor but get a job in a company.

Nobody told me how to teach and I don't even know what classes I have. I have little time to prepare, and probably don't know the professor (professors?) well. So what can I do to prepare, until I know what courses I have and can go over the material? I'm quite scared right now.

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    Being a TA gives you extremely valuable experience that you almost never otherwise get before your first job: How to read other people's code. Some students come up with very, shall we say, "interesting" constructs, and being able to decipher them will help immensely - especially for interviews that give you some code to start with. (I was a lab TA, so I helped with their projects when they got stuck, but rarely did any teaching myself unless it was to clarify a point about the current project)
    – Izkata
    Commented Aug 27, 2013 at 18:06
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    @Izkata code? While it may sometimes feel that everyone on Academia.SE is working in CS, it's not actually the case :)
    – F'x
    Commented Aug 27, 2013 at 18:22
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    @F'x Oh... yeah. Yay "Hot Questions", I didn't realize which site I was on. Okay, okay, reinterpret that as "other peoples' work", I'm sure it still applies in a lot of fields... =P
    – Izkata
    Commented Aug 27, 2013 at 18:32
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    Be prepared to be shocked when you find out that most students don't know what you thought all 14-year-olds know. Commented Aug 27, 2013 at 19:27
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    More generally, learning to teach means learning to communicate complex ideas to non-experts, which is an incredibly valuable skill in any profession.
    – JeffE
    Commented Aug 27, 2013 at 21:32

7 Answers 7


Be honest and be yourself. Students will latch on to your discomfort and will use it as an excuse for their performance. I have found that if you are honest with them with a statement along the lines of "I am new to teaching, so please be patient while I work out my teaching style and get more comfortable. If you have any concerns about how class is going, please speak to me as soon as possible." they are much more forgiving of your mistakes which you are bound to make. There is nothing worse than students who feel they cannot pass the class due to your teaching, so allowing them to voice their opinions early can both help in your teaching (i.e., "You stand in front of the board too often." or "It would be more helpful if you spent a little more time going over X.") and in your students attitudes towards you. But be careful on this front, make no instantaneous decisions. I always will say something like "I will think about it and get back to you next class if the policy X needs to change." Always get back to them about it, even if it is a no.

Additionally, talk to other grad students and faculty if you are finding you are having problems with teaching. I would be surprised if your department or university had people did not staffed just for training of instructors for teaching duties. Talk to them and voice your nervousness, they are there to help. Even think about all your classes and what the professor did that you hated or liked and try to emulate the best attributes as best you can. But don't try to be these people, just be yourself.

The key here is talk to everyone, do your best, and be yourself.

Since you're just starting out, I don't believe that they would throw you in cold into a classroom and say "teach" without any forewarning or even knowledge of which class, but they might depending on where you are (and talk to other people about what to do quickly if possible). You will probably start out grading and/or doing recitations/review sections a few times a week until you are more capable/comfortable with maintain your own class.

Good luck in teaching and studies! I always think being able to explain what you know to other people is a true sign that you know it yourself.

Addendum: The books that earthling suggested will always help. If you are in mathematics, I also suggest How to Teach Mathematics by Steven G. Krantz. Even though it is written for those teaching math, it is also a good read for almost any new instructor, particularly in the sciences.

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    I might add as a side note that it is easy to let teaching take over all of your time. Plan your time well and remember your number one priority is your own research/classes.
    – Chris C
    Commented Aug 27, 2013 at 15:02
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    I don't believe that they would throw you in cold into a classroom and say "teach" without any forewarning or even knowledge of which classSadly, I do.
    – JeffE
    Commented Aug 27, 2013 at 21:32
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    @JeffE why? do you want to teach something to your TA?
    – enthu
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 15:44

You are off to the right start - ask questions. Next step is read... a lot.

I have some books I've recommended here before. They will give you a good beginning.

Sadly, university teachers are rarely prized for their teaching abilities. Often they are just thrown in as long as they understand the subject(s). Tertiary teaching is, more often than not, learned on the job. So, read all the posts here about teaching. If you have a chance, practice. Usually a university teacher's first semester is the worst. It gets much better (and easier) as you go on.

One other course I would recommend is The Art of Teaching. It is really well done and covers so very many things you should be thinking about.


Accept that the first day, and probably a few days following that, are likely to feel a bit 'emotional'. It happens to everyone. It will get better from there quite quickly, though will probably take at least a term before you really get into the swing of things.

If you haven't done so yet, try going to the admin department and seeing if they know what courses you'll be doing. They're useful people to know in general, and I've found them often to be much more on top of things like this than the faculty. The same applies to lab technicians and other staff (who will absolutely know a heck of a lot more about this stuff than you do, so stay on their good side).

If you're not already, get familiar with the way things are generally 'done' at your uni. With undergrad courses and practicals there's quite possibly a standard way all work is assigned and graded. Look in the undergraduate prospectus and/or any webpages set up for them to get an idea what they're being told, and hence their expectations. Also look up any rules your department has on plagiarism, dealing with late work, dealing with sick days and religious holidays, what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate behaviour towards them on your part, etc.

You will almost certainly need a calendar to keep track of when you're meant to be doing what. I've used a pocket book in the past, but these days would probably use my phone so I can sync it all online. Being organised, and knowing that you're organised, removes a lot of the stress.

Once you find out what course you're doing be sure to go through all of it. If there's a practical demonstration, do it yourself as soon as possible - and once you can do it, play with the equipment and find all the ways it can fail to work (your students will discover them all). If there's questions students will be expected to do, do them all yourself, no matter how easy they look - you need to know this material better than they do, so you can deal with the thousand and one bizarre errors they will make. This will be a bit of a time sink, but you've got to do it.

Be prepared to not be surprised if you start to find you're enjoying it. Even if teaching isn't your long term goal, seeing someone 'get' a problem thanks to your advice can be very rewarding.


Before every lecture I've taught, I hand out forms to the students. The questions on the form are very simple:

  • What went well?
  • What could be improved?
  • Do you have any other suggestions?

I collect the forms at the end of the lecture. The feedback I get may be tremendously helpful.


A good number of universities (or departments) have a TA Handbook, or another sort of documentation which contains both high-level stuff (e.g., policies), but also very practical advice on being a teaching assistant. Ask around if your institution has one (ask the more senior students, or ask the administrative staff). Also, have a look at those institutions that put theirs on the web:


One part of your question I can offer very concrete advice for. You say you don't know what classes you have then go into the main office of your department and ask where to get trained on the course registration software. You say you don't know the professors that you are assisting well or at all, make appointments to go meet them and ask them what they want you to do. What they tell you will be the best starting point for your preparation.

When you go into industry you will occasionally be asked to complete tasks that may not be to your taste. For you it sounds like teaching while in grad school is the same situation and this is ok. Treat these two situations similarly, put in enough time and effort to do it well and it should work out fine for everybody.


This is a very broad question and the best answer may heavily depend on the field you are in. Nevertheless I feel there are some general principles one can try to adhere to, to be a decent TA.

  • Talk to the Professor of the course about the content. Furthermore try to schedule a weekly meeting with him or his assistants, where you can discuss problems and what happened in the course that week.

  • Find out if there are other TAs, who you can discuss problems with. They may have more experience than you, which they can share. If you need to grade some work, it is very good to have a joint session with other TAs, since then the grading for the course will become more uniform. This is especially important if you have to grade an exam at the end.

  • Prepare your sessions well, i.e. prepare some notes about what you think should be said and solve any exercises beforehand.

  • Be aware that you are now "on the other side", but are still not quite faculty yet. A TA is often a buffer between students and professors. Many students are too shy to directly talk to professors, so they may turn to you instead. Make it clear that you are open for concerns and forward these concerns to the professor, even if you do not agree. If you do agree with some concerns, you should also at least try to stand up to the professor on behalf of the students.

  • Stick to your scheduled time. Make it clear when your session starts and when it ends and do not go over time.

  • Try to build a friendly, but professional climate in your session, where people are comfortable posing questions and admitting mistakes, this also applies to you.

  • If you are faced with a difficult question you are not able to answer right away, write it down and prepare a good answer for the next session.

  • There may be students who are smarter or more knowledgeable than you and which might seem to pose a "threat" to your authority. Make it clear that you are in charge, but try to include them into your teaching by letting them talk or answer other peoples questions. Sometimes these people are not trying to challenge your authority, but just want to be recognized by their peers.

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