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Background: I am a fourth year math graduate student working as a TA for an introduction to proofs course with a focus on analysis.

I really enjoy the teaching component of my position as a graduate student, but this semester I feel as though students are taking advantage of my generosity.

As is typical for a TA in the math department at my university, I hold a couple (in my case, two) office hours per week, plus additional availability via appointment. My office hours are nearly always occupied, which generally pleases me. However, my students nearly always stay well past the point when my office hours are supposed to end, even a couple hours worth in most cases.

In addition, I tend to spend nearly all my waking hours at my office, so I have no problem meeting with students at a wide variety of times. They are well aware of this, and several of them have requested frequent appointments that do not coincide with my office hours. Again, the main issue here is that these appointments often last much, much longer than an hour.

I understand that the material of this course is challenging, and I am glad that my students desire to improve their abilities. However, their behavior is seriously impinging upon my ability to progress in my research.

What are acceptable avenues for reaching a compromise between my need to progress in my work and my desire to assist my students? So far I've considered the following:

  1. I've attempted to subtly imply that I would appreciate less consumption of my time, but I don't want to discourage their eager approach to their work and they don't seem to be getting the hint.

  2. Alternatively, I could lie about having meetings, other appointments, obligations, etc, but I would feel wrong doing so.

  3. I could obviously just tell them that they can't stay late because I have other work that I need to perform, but again, I don't want to directly shut them down.

Ultimately, I would love to find some systematic way to decrease the strain that they place on my schedule. One trick I have utilized is the deliberate scheduling of an office hour immediately before the taught class, since both me and any students have to leave at that time to go to class. Are there other things like this I could do?

I'm not merely looking for a solution for this semester, because I'd like to prevent this problem in the future as well.

  • 89
    You do have other obligations: to get on with your graduate studies. That you don't have a specific entry in your calendar "5pm: get on with studies" doesn't mean your non-TA work is unimportant. So you won't be lying if you tell your students that you have other things that require your attention. – S. Kolassa - Reinstate Monica Oct 28 '15 at 7:44
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    You likely don't do them a favor, either: they should not need as much hand-holding. Have them prepare their questions as a group to safe all of you time. – Raphael Oct 28 '15 at 11:20
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    They value your time. But the real problem is that you don't. – Xavier J Oct 28 '15 at 16:19
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    I fed this stray cat, and now it keeps coming back and expects food every time! What can I do! – JPhi1618 Oct 28 '15 at 20:59
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    I don't want to directly shut them down — Yes, you do. "I'm sorry, my office hours are over; I have to ask you to leave now." I recommend buying an alarm clock, preferably one with an actual bell, and setting it to go off at the end of your publicly announced office hours. When the bell goes off, kick everyone out, and then close the door. You do not need to explain why you're kicking them out. You do not need to feel guilty about kicking them out. If the students feel they need more office hours, you can negotiate with them about scheduling more office hours next week. – JeffE Oct 30 '15 at 17:16

14 Answers 14

123

You don't need a "trick" to solve this problem. They're staying past the end of your scheduled office hours because you have been tolerant of this so far. (I suspect they completely missed your subtle hints.)

It sounds like you have made it too easy for them to use you as a crutch, rather than doing the work on their own and then coming to you with specific, focused questions. (Very much like this situation.) It's not good for you and it's not good for them.

At the end of your scheduled office hours, say (with a smile):

Thanks, everyone, for coming! Don't forget that if you need extra help, you can also schedule an appointment with me.

You can do the same thing at the end of a scheduled appointment:

It seems like we made some progress here. If you realize you still have questions after working on this some more, you can schedule another appointment.

Then if you need more of a reason to usher them out the door, grab your jacket and announce that you're going out for some coffee/air/exercise/something to eat.

If you think students are using office hours productively and genuinely need more time with a TA, consider letting the course instructor know - perhaps he/she should hire another TA to offer extra support.

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    @AegisCruiser One option would be to actually schedule some meetings at the end of your office hours. I assume you do meet with someone during a week, even if it's not a large part of your time. – Jessica B Oct 28 '15 at 7:26
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    @JessicaB But in that case, you are hiding the true problem, right? You don't tell the students that the true reason is you can't spend so much time on the office hours. So why wouldn't you simply say this? – yo' Oct 28 '15 at 7:49
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    Help vampires keep sucking if you keep giving up blood... – J... Oct 28 '15 at 18:43
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    I would add that it might be a good idea to impose a time limit on scheduled appointments and to start actively enforcing it. If a student can only make a 15 minute appointment rather than an hour long one, they will be forced to be concise in their questions, stimulating them into doing more preparation work. When the students get used to this, you should ostensibly be able to cover their needs in your office hours, so then the option of having an exceptional appointment outside hours becomes available again: 15 minutes of your own time is much easier to accommodate than an hour. – Cronax Oct 29 '15 at 10:52
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    @mike3 I would go even further. It's none of the students' business what you're going to do after they leave. It doesn't matter if you're going to spend the next hour reading StackExchange and playing Angry Birds. Once office hours are over, they're over. – JeffE Oct 30 '15 at 17:25
14

3 every time. As a teaching assistant, you are employed by the university. They employ you for office hours. You have no obligation to anyone, including the university, outside of those hours.

If instead of being at work, you were sitting at a table in the pub with beers in front of you (which out of hours you are entitled to be), would you accept students coming to you to ask questions? If not, why not? And now, why is your situation here any different?

The solution is simple – print out an A4 notice saying

Student enquiries between 9 am and 5 pm, please.

and stick it to the door. If you particularly want to break your own rule for a particular student/question, that’s up to you. But you’ve then established that outside of these times, you have a right to not be available.

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    I would add that students I've dealt with in this situation have been understanding when I said that I had other work that I needed to do. – BBS Oct 28 '15 at 12:37
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I think that if you carefully consider the whole set of things you've said, you'll see that you already know the answer.

First, there is the negative situation that you want to stop:

  • "Students are taking advantage of my generosity"
  • "Students nearly always stay well past the point when my office hours are supposed to end, even a couple hours worth in most cases"
  • "The main issue here is that these appointments often last much, much longer than an hour"
  • "Their behavior is seriously impinging upon my ability to progress in my research"

Second, while you do want to solve this problem, you revealed some results you don't want as you solve it:

  • "I don't want to discourage their eager approach to their work"
  • "I don't want to directly shut them down"

Third, there's what you've tried so far to get them to use less of your time:

  • You have office hours (presumably posted) that state an ending time.
  • "Subtly imply that I would appreciate less consumption of my time."
  • "Deliberate scheduling of an office hour immediately before the taught class"

And finally, it seems like your goal is:

  • "Compromise between my need to progress in my work and my desire to assist my students"

Frankly, it looks like the real problem (to me) is that you want students to leave when they've taken up a reasonable amount of your time, without you having to directly tell anyone it's time to go.

But you have to ask yourself, why on Earth would they do that? All you've done is bend over backwards to accommodate their use of your time at every turn! And even if you had been more clear, there is a difference between what's reasonable and what's realistic. It may be reasonable for them to value your time more (by using less of it), but it's completely unrealistic for you to expect that to happen, without you doing something to make it happen somehow. People are fundamentally selfish and will use as much of your time as you don't stop them from using. It's up to you to stop them.

You want a compromise without changing your own actions, but that's not a compromise. Part of the compromise you have to make will be giving up some degree or quantity of your apparent wishes/goals in order to get others that you value more. Specifically, you may have to disappoint some students from time to time, and until you're willing to do that, you'll continue to feel like a doormat and be used like one.

It basically comes down to this: You need to decide what you want, and then make that happen. You don't know what you want right now, besides wanting to not have to deal directly with the problem of students taking more time than you wish. Except... I think you do know. You want the problem to fix itself, but know deep down that it won't. What you're afraid of is true: you have to do the hard thing and set limits.

Also, I would like to suggest that setting limits on student use of your time is not "shutting someone down" or "discouraging eager work". Saying those things is, in my mind, just a means to avoid the unpleasantness of having to tell someone to leave and being firm about it. If students need more help than you can give, that's not your problem to solve for each and every student. Live in the real world, where you have a limited amount of resources and you must apply them wisely. Your resource of time is being misused, and you must stop that. It is not fair to you to be used all the way up. Students have to study by themselves eventually, and you need to give them a reason to do that.

Here are some ideas.

  1. Communicate. Actually tell them what's going on and ask for help. Hold a meeting with all the students, or print up a flyer, or put each student's name in a book and check it off once you've communicated this. Tell them, "Dear Student, I love helping all of you, and wish that I could continue helping you in the way I have until now, giving you all of my time and energy. However, as much as I hate the idea of leaving you hanging, I have to reduce the time I'm spending, and from now on I'll be ending office hours at the stated time and appointments after 1 hour." Ask for them to brainstorm with you how to fix the situation. Ask for their help directly. Ask how they actually want to grow as people and if just relying on you is their idea of true personal growth? Whatever you decide on and you clearly say will happen, do it.

  2. Delegate. Brainstorm with the students to find ways to use your time more effectively. Suggest they set up their own study groups. Get the more advanced/smarter students to tutor the less so. Assign a student to come and kick people out for you.

  3. Be consistent. Do make use of strategies for avoiding the confrontation of saying "it's time to go", but don't use only these strategies if that leaves times when you don't make someone leave. You have to change the way things work in order to set clear expectations. The moment you let even one student stay late, you set up expectations that are at variance with what you want, and that is truly an uphill battle. Students have to know you stinkin' mean business about ending at the right time, and the only way they know that (no matter what you tell them) is by actually doing it. Every time.

  4. Demonstrate. One strategy that can help you is to use non-verbal signals. Get up and walk away when something is over. Even if you can't leave the room, can you get up from the study table and walk back to your desk? Can you take off your glasses, turn off a light, go into a different room, close up books and put them in packs? Get a neon light that you turn on when it's consultation time, then turn it off when it's over. Go open the door and stand there holding it, looking expectantly at them. Look obviously at your watch. Set a timer or alarm that rings (use a 15-minute warning if you like, too). Start talking about next time. Act as if you don't have to tell them they need to leave, act as if they already are in the process of leaving, and you'll find that they get the message. Physically break eye contact, turn your body away from them, and take a few steps. Leave the room and walk away, asking them to make sure the door closes when they leave. All these can be easier than having to say "it's time to go now." I promise they'll work for almost every student.

  5. Be firm. By this, I mean precisely one thing: don't discuss it at leaving time. Discuss the new rules all you want, but never at leaving time. Leaving time is for leaving. Talk about it next time you meet. Make an appointment. Send an email. Write a reminder note. But get them out the door.

  6. Be oblivious. Use this as a last resort, but for any students who still have trouble leaving, and you truly still feel so uncomfortable repeatedly saying "see you at our next meeting" or "I really have some work to do" and really making them leave, then simply act as if they've left. Ignore them. Get busy with your own work. When they impinge on your awareness, act startled, and say "oh, are you still here? Office hours are over." Then go back to your work and ignore them. It will work. You don't even have to tell them to leave.

  7. Give yourself a break. Recognize that you are the only one who can decide what you want, and you're the only one who can make what you want happen. If you don't choose to make what you want happen, you're the only one to blame for that (I guess you didn't really want it, enough, after all). So don't beat yourself up for not being Superman. You deserve to have the kind of life you want (within reason). It's clear you love your students, but it's not loving to them if you burn yourself out, or come to resent them over time.

  8. Get real. You may not actually be helping your students all that much by being on call for them all the time. Will they ever learn how to study on their own? Are they learning the right habits that will help them in their future studies and careers? At some point, you have to stop flying your babies around and let them use their own wings.

Important note: I'm cognizant there is tension between be consistent and be firm on the one hand, and be oblivious (and possibly, demonstrate) on the other. However, realize that we're not dealing with a perfect world full of superhuman gods and goddesses—we've got a somewhat harried yet good-hearted T.A., a mere human, who struggles with setting firm limits on people he or she otherwise loves to serve, and who doesn't exactly relish confrontations that result in their disappointment. Since we're living in the real world, instead, I offered both what I think should happen (be firm and consistent) and also threw out a rescue line for situations where a particularly insistent or oblivious student makes things difficult. Think about it: once the lesson is learned (by the T.A.) on how to help people leave, and the experience is gained, even using the be oblivious "game" I suggested, change will occur within, and in time, this game won't be required. Consider: in utilizing these strategies, the O.P. will more likely be successful at the firm part, because in no case will he or she continue assisting the student past the requisite time, and that's the important part.

Don't assume others are exactly like you, and please recognize that sometimes, less-than-perfect coping strategies are necessary. For people who can stand to grow and are finding it difficult, they may need baby steps. Have some compassion!

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    re: 5. "see you next Tuesday". This is an unfortunate turn of phrase and should not be used in the UK. – xddsg Oct 29 '15 at 23:18
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    @xddsg Is that better? I think it's really stupid that someone can't say that phrase innocently. Like, a car company can't trademark the word "sedan". Because then everyone else wouldn't be able to call their sedans sedans. How else do you say that you'll meet up with someone on the upcoming Tuesday? Ridiculous! :) – ErikE Oct 29 '15 at 23:20
  • if the person is trying new things to get people to leave for the first time, and in fact might become flustered, it's sensible to avoid things that could be misinterpreted. Hustling them out of the door unexpectedly, being strict where you were previously relaxed and then shouting "see you next Tuesday!" as they leave would be pretty clear cut to me. Our TA does not want to see us again. – xddsg Oct 29 '15 at 23:28
  • @xddsg My complaint wasn't really about you (you didn't invent the phrase), but about the world, where people are ready to assume the worst. All of my ideas should be taken in context, together. Note that idea #1 was to communicate clearly to everyone what the problem was and what will be done to resolve it, then there's little chance of misinterpretation. My example of "see you next Tuesday" was absolutely a hypothetical based on the idea of an actual next meeting time scheduled with that actual student. "next Monday" or "tomorrow" or "at our next meeting" would serve just as well. – ErikE Oct 29 '15 at 23:32
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    Be oblivious. — No, don't play this game. Be direct, be firm, and be honest. – JeffE Oct 30 '15 at 17:22
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I'm also a TA, and I greatly enjoy working with my students during my office hours. When my two hours are up, I'm often in the middle of working with a student, and there are other students who want my help. Here's how I handle the situation:

Whenever a student comes up to me and asks me for help when my office hours are officially over, I turn them down. If they're a student from my class, I let them know they can schedule an appointment with me, and if they're from another class, I help them find a different TA instead. (In my department, TAs prioritize helping their own students but are expected to help students from any class.)

Then, I let the student I'm working with know that I can help for a while longer, usually 15 to 30 minutes, depending on how busy I am. Then, if I can help them resolve their problem by that time, great! I can leave knowing my work is done. Otherwise, I help them find another TA who can help them and leave.

My situation sounds a little different than yours because I can ask other TAs to cover me when my office hours are over. However, there are still a couple things I do that you can, too:

  1. When a student comes in after your office hours are over, even if you're helping another student, tell them to set up an appointment with you or come back the following week.
  2. When a student stays past the end of your office hours, give them a cut-off time 10-20 minutes in advance. If the student still needs more help after that, ask them to set up an appointment.
5

I'd say that in academia "defending your time" always needs to be priority #1. Requests and demands on your time can expand endlessly, and the work is frequently invisible to supervisors (not on a clock, frequently at home, including nights and weekends), so you must set boundaries for yourself. If you get burned out or overworked then you won't be able to help yourself or any future students. Presumably your institution has an idea of how much time you should spend on office hours (sounds like 2 hours per week; for me it's 3), so you should follow that guideline and not extend it.

Personally, I'm of the mind that students always coming to office hours is not a good thing. They should be able to pick up most of the material from the lectures, book, and study with other students; anything else is a sign of a system breakdown. Office hour time with faculty should be a last-stop emergency measure (most of my friends with bachelors' degrees never went to faculty office hours their whole college career).

For practical purposes, your #3 item is very solid (it's basically what I do). Consider also scheduling the office hour at the very start or end of the day, so that you have uninterrupted work time to mentally focus on other tasks. Possibly schedule it right before a lunch or dinner hour and commit to leaving for that when the time comes. Tell students when they arrive how long you can work for them (e.g., "We have until 5:20", or "Let's work for 10 minutes so the next student waiting can come in"); I find that students get better at focusing, prioritizing, and coming in with sharp questions when I do this.

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    Addendum via comment: Also, specifically request that students come with specific questions about specific exercises, what step they got stuck on, etc. (the same protocol as on math.stackexchange). Going over the whole lecture again should not be allowed; that just enables students to skip or not pay attention in class, at the cost of double your own time. – Daniel R. Collins Oct 31 '15 at 16:07
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This is a common occurrence - a young, approachable instructor, one who seems more like his/her students than their other instructors, is a natural attraction to students - they believe you will understand them not just their problems in the course. Others here have offered good suggestions for you, but basically, you'll have to wend your way through this until you establish boundaries that are clear but sympathetic to the situation. For the following semesters, you can set the ground rules by explaining that while you are contractually required to hold only two office hours, you have on occasion allowed more time to a student's particularly difficult or complex problem, but that extra time is not usual, as your academic responsibilities extend beyond the course you teach. Suggest that students talk to one another (peer learning is exceedingly positive), and if there is a common question, they should come as a group, not as individuals to maximize the time you do have available for them. Students can understand everything if it is explained to them. Mostly, they are kids looking for a kind word of support from someone they respect, trust, and who appears to be like them. Showing them that you care doesn't mean that you care to the exclusion of the rest of your life. They'll get it.

3

You can try to deal with this problem using email. You strictly enforce your office hours, but you tell the students that if they need extra help, they can email you. You can then deal with the questions of the students whenever it suits you best. Replies can be brief, you'll find it a lot easier to only give a few hints compared to a face to face meeting where it's difficult to not go into details.

3

The most important is that you find the best way to help your students and yourself in the manner you deem fitting. Giving more time to students may not actually bring you closer to this goal if you think about it, nor may it be optimal even if it does.

What is not often emphasized is that students learn better when they have to explain what they think to other students, be it their questions or answers. In many cases simply getting them to write out their question in a clear and detailed manner for everyone to see can help them find their own answer in the process of thinking how to express themselves.

And even if they can't figure out the answer themselves, there are always other students who can help and would be glad to help, just like you. Collaboration in pedagogy is quite under-valued. Ultimately, you do not have to be the solitary teacher, and arguably should not be, since teaching other students does not only help their own learning process but should in fact be one of the most significant goals of education. Students cannot merely learn to solve problems but must learn to convey and discuss their ideas with others.

Your role is to facilitate this process, by checking what students tell one another and stepping in only when serious conceptual errors arise, but letting them be active participants in the teaching. After all, if you can impart your knowledge and your ability to teach to just 2 students, they in turn can teach 4 others...

All this is easiest if there is some common forum for students to participate in, where you would have to encourage them to post their questions.

2

Make the students reserve a slot of your time. Bonus if it is done using a web page (thus there's not a person who needs to turn them down). If they want to meet you in the morning, it's no problem, it gets debited anyway from your assigned weekly hours. If there are no hours left, they are showed an error message and will need to wait till next week (or maybe allow them to join another student… assuming you can handle both at the same time). You could allow them to use up all your yearly office hours in the first month, but I would recommend not to allow them to expend so much office hours. At most for this month imho.

Finally, this also allows you to record the time spent helping students, both to students (see, I have been asked all these hours), to the department (if there's such demand maybe they should add more TAs?) and to yourself (it is easy not to realise how much time you really are dedicating).

2

Be honest. Then be strict. Value your time.

My suggestion:

1) At the beginning of office hours, genuinely express your thoughts and feelings to your students. You likely don't want to limit their learning. You like to teach them, yet you can only offer so much.

2) Define a strict stopping time. Write it on the board if needed. Make it clear that after the end of office hours, the office returns to be your office.

3) Live by your words. End on time.

You remind me of myself. I too tend to teach students on my off-hours. It's enjoyable, agreed. As long as you seem to understand that this is completely pro-bono work, and as long as you enjoy it, then I guess that's cool.

But you have to be reasonable. It seems like you're not respecting your own time, or perhaps, you have naively weighed how much time you have. Reflect on this. You can use that time in so many other ways. It's not just research time that you're likely losing.

Clearly announcing your intentions and feelings, as suggested, can alleviate any personal (and wholly irrational) guilt. Second, it serves as a catalyst to action; it'll make it harder to renege on your decision.

Speaking of which, I think I've spent more than my fair share of time on Stack Exchange today...

2

Point at the door. Say "Out!"

Then, something like "Come back again at [office hours] if you'd like some more help."

Then, continue pointing and don't say anything else but "Out!" till they start collecting their stuff.

Have you heard of "Idiot Compassion"?

"It refers to something we all do a lot of and call it compassion. In some ways, it’s what’s called enabling. It’s the general tendency to give people what they want because you can't bear to see them suffering.

2

It might help if you limit each student that sees you to a set time interval--say, 10 or 15 minutes. Or have a sign in sheet on your door that limits the number of students you will see on any particular day. You seem to understand that YOU set the limits, the start and stop times. But you also need to enforce those times and reschedule the overflow to a different day.

It may help for you to require the students that see you to post answers to the questions they have in a FAQ blog about the course. Then you will not spend time with multiple students going over the same material. Most quantitative courses have "lab" sessions with finite endpoints. As a mathematician, I'm sure you appreciate that it is helpful to set clear limits on the set of all students you are teaching:)

2

Alternatively, I could lie about having meetings, other appointments, obligations, etc, but I would feel wrong doing so.

You don't need to "lie", because it's none of their business what other things you have to do, or even if you have no other things to do.

Simply allot x time for your meeting with the students, and when it is over, you simply tell them that time is up and they will have to look forward to the next session. And "goodbye". That is it. No justification, no excuses. The meeting is over.

This is not hard, and it is not specific to academia. It is basic, basic, basic human interaction. "Sorry, I have to go now" is a phrase you must surely know by now.

0

If you're just a pushover by nature, you may need to either find a different location to hold your office hours and additional appointments, or find a different location to do your own work.

Is the course too difficult for the students at their current level?

If not, just get the student unstuck about a particular question or stumbling block, then say, "I think you're well on your way now, off you go. Have fun!" If the student is reluctant to leave, say, "I have full confidence in you. You will be fine. Let me know if you get stuck again." Then walk out to the bathroom or the water fountain.

I love user21280's idea about fostering collaboration among students. You can facilitate this by grouping two to four students at a time for particular questions, and after a little bit, suggesting they get together for regular study group meetings. You can also take a page out of online teaching and get everybody into a google group talking to each other.

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