On Tuesday I’ll TA my first lab section. I know that many of my fellow first-year grads (at least here at MyU) are petrified because they’ve never taught before. Now, I’ve never been a TA before, but I’ve taught literally hundreds of times–enough that I don’t get nervous any more. So for all you teaching greenies, here’s my best advice:
(1) Pretend you’re on stage. At first, I found it easier to act a part (yes, I love drama) than I did to teach a class. After a great deal of introspection, I figured out that this was because when I was acting I was someone else–people weren’t looking at me, they were looking at the character. But when I was teaching, they were looking at me AS me. Gulp. So for the first five years or so of teaching I went through a ritual: “putting on my costume” (I only wore certain clothes to teach, and never wore them any other time), mentally reviewing my notes, going over the introduction and conclusion a couple of times, etc. In other words, I made up a persona to transform into. Somehow this made the act of teaching psychologically easier to handle.
Know your stuff backwards and forwards. This is vital. You can’t be a confident teacher if you’re BSing. If it’s been a few years since you covered the material, for heaven’s sake, go over it before class starts.
Not only do you have to know the theory, you need to know how it applies to the situation at hand. For example, many first year chem TAs will find themselves running freshman chem lab sections. If you know how to balance a chemical equation and you understand acid-base equilibria you be able to help your students do a titration. But often their questions will be of a more practical nature: “What molarity HCl am I supposed to use? How many mL am I supposed to pipet into my Erlenmeyer flask? Where is the phenolphthalein kept?” So not only should you review theory, you should also review procedures. (If you’re TAing a recitation section, DO THE ASSIGNED PROBLEMS before you get to rec…)
(3) Keep your sense of humor. Not only will this help you connect to your students, it will also help you deal with any mistakes you made…
(4) Most importantly, remember that every one of your students is unique. Everyone learns differently. So if someone doesn’t “get it” the first time, don’t go over the problem again the exact same way! Try hitting it from a different angle. Some people need to talk through problems: use the Socratic Method (asking leading questions) to guide them. Some people are visual learners: work a similar problem on the blackboard so they can see how you do it. (Kinesthetic learners, those who learn by doing, are a lot harder to deal with in a group setting: I strongly advise that you get these students alone so they can work with you one-on-one, if possible.)
Good luck with your classes!