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TAs and TFs: The First Line of Response

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By Melissa Swauger, TA Serveices, CIDDE

Did you ever have a student disappear from class mid-semester only to return on final exam day? Or one who revealed a personal life in disarray when trying to explain his/her chronic absenteeism? How about a student who did poorly on an exam but didn’t tell you about her learning disability until she came to you begging for a re-take? How do you deal with students who have problems that interrupt their ability to succeed academically? These issues confront most faculty and can be especially perplexing for teaching assistants and teaching fellows.

TAs and TFs have a unique and ambiguous position. On one hand we are instructors: We teach, assess, and evaluate students. On the other hand, we may be viewed by undergraduates as peers: We, too, are students who may be close in age with undergraduates, and we usually implement more familiar discussions in the smaller recitations and courses we teach. By way of demographics, then, students may see us as more easily approachable than the instructor. As a result, we are often the first line of response for academically unprepared students who look to us for assistance in succeeding in the course and/or students with problems in their personal lives who seek our understanding and advocacy on behalf of their course evaluations.

Most TAs and TFs have been approached by students who are trying to deal with critical issues that interrupt their academic performance. Whether it is a learning disability, involvement in a violent relationship, sexual assault, or drug and alcohol issues, our experiences tell us that students frequently count on us for sympathy, understanding, and academic support. What do we do? How should we respond?

Negotiating multiple roles can be difficult. How can you manage to act as an instructor, tutor, counselor, and/or friend, given that you care about your students academically and personally? It is important for TAs and TFs (as well as faculty) to remember that we are not trained tutors or counselors (and even if we are, we are serving students in a capacity as their instructors). So while we may truly sympathize with our students and want to help them, the best way we can be of service is by acting as a referral source to a number of University services that have been established to meet students’ special needs. These include the Writing Center, Academic Support Center, Learning Skills Center, Office of Disability Resources, and the University Counseling Center.

Information about these services is available in the TA Handbook developed by CIDDE. The Handbook provides a directory and description of University services and can be an excellent resource for TAs and TFs trying to respond to student issues. As the first line of response, our role is a crucial one, and we should become familiar with campus-wide services and plan ahead for the event of a student crisis. An electronic version of the TA Handbook can be found by clicking here or you can obtain a hard copy by contacting Melissa at 412-624- 6592 or tahelp@ciddepitt.edu.


MARCH 2005

Contents:

Faculty use varied technologies for teaching
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Electronic library reserves attract more users
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Improved learning attributed to practice through Computer Assisted Testing
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Electronic Student Response Systems
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PDF Files provide student access to materials
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Software helps students in large classes to write and revise papers
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Online discussions engage all students
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Engineering and English collaboration serves as model for improving outcomes
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New Digital Ink feature makes it possible to save annotations on PowerPoint slides
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TAs and TFs: The First Line of Response