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I'm set to start my first year as a TA at a large R1 institution. My teaching assignment consists of being a TA for an honors calculus I section. This includes holding a weekly problem solving session (in person) to about 20 students. The lecture, however, will be online. My general questions are:

  • Besides taking the obvious safety precautions, (my university has mandated the use of masks on campus) what else can I do to make my classroom as safe as possible?

  • What would you do differently as a TA during a global pandemic? Maybe grade more leniently? Hold online office hours?

  • What would you do differently as a TA between an honors and non-honors section? For example, I was looking into old assignments and one of the differences is that honors calculus I cover epsilon-delta proofs and place more emphasis on theorems such as the mean value and intermediate value theorem. I'm guessing there will be a larger percentage of math majors than in your typical calculus I class.

Thanks for your advice.

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  • @Buffy So far, three down votes, two close votes. I must admit I fail to understand the down vote reasons because I can't see what part of the question trigger it, "grade more leniently"? Or something else?
    – Nobody
    Commented Aug 16, 2020 at 12:42
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    @scaaahu, I find that down votes are often difficult to understand. Everyone has their own ideas. I think the close votes here are reasonable. There really are too many different questions here. (lenient grading, honors, Covid) (For the record, none of the votes are mine).
    – Buffy
    Commented Aug 16, 2020 at 12:57
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    I see several issues with the question: 1. Multiple unrelated questions in one post. 2. First question is inappropriate since only public health officials at your university have the expertise to answer (if someone answered suggesting to use some quack/conspiracy theory-related remedy, how would you feel about helping to spread covid-19 misinformation?) 3. Second question is inappropriate as it reads a bit like “what would you do differently as a TA during an alien invasion?” - there’s a false premise that anyone here has experience that you don’t dealing with such a one-off event.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Aug 16, 2020 at 14:05
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    (P.S. I didn’t downvote, it’s a reasonable question after all, but you seemed to be wanting some feedback about how it might be improved. Good luck with the TA-ing, sounds like a challenging and stressful first assignment.)
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Aug 16, 2020 at 14:20
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    I suggest moving your third bullet to a new post. The first two bullets (about teaching during a pandemic) may or may not be answerable, but the third one (about honors sections) is completely unrelated. By the way, you may find that MathEducators.SE is a better fit for the third one.
    – cag51
    Commented Aug 16, 2020 at 21:46

2 Answers 2

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Talk to the lecturer in charge of the course.

The lecturer (or professor, if that’s what your university calls them – different countries use different titles to refer to the equivalent positions) is your boss; if there’s something you’re uncertain of regarding how to teach their class, they should be your first port of call unless it’s utterly trivial.

So, ask them about how they would prefer you to handle things like office hours or grading; it’ll be important for all the tutors to be on the same page for those sorts of things anyway, so that students who were in one tutorial aren’t unfairly advantaged over students in others. Similarly, they should be familiar with what material will be covered in the honors vs non-honors versions of the class/unit/course/whatever your university calls it.

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A few quick observations, based on my own experience:

  • In an ordinary situation, one of my big pieces of advice to a first-time TA would be "give the students lots of group work in class". It's a great way to get them to learn and build a supportive community at the same time. Unfortunately, it sounds like your institution is going to be placing COVID-19 precautions firmly on your shoulders, so you'll need to be the one enforcing social distancing. As a result you should avoid group work in order to keep everyone safe. Instead, I'd recommend giving students problems to practice on independently, and then have them share out their ideas to the class as a whole.
  • Grading more leniently doesn't make sense - remember that, as an educator, one of your primary responsibilities is to make sure that students who pass your class are adequately qualified to succeed in the next class. Instead, I would recommend talking to your instructor about setting up a lenient policy about deadlines. It's reasonable to be nice about late work, but that would need to be something coordinated.
  • Online office hours are an excellent idea, but in my experience students are less than likely to show up unless prompted to do so. I'd encourage you to ask your instructor if you can require your students to attend online office hours at least once. That would "break the ice" and make them much more likely to attend on their own.

And the big one:

  • As @nick012000 suggested, talk to your instructor. This is important because it's hard. When I was a first-time TA, I shied away from asking questions or reporting problems to my instructor, because I felt like that would make me look like I didn't know what I was doing. What I didn't understand is that a first-time TA is not supposed to know what they're doing. You've received very little training, and probably none that's relevant to teaching in a pandemic - own that, and communicate as much as you can with the people who do know what they're doing.

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