While taking a course, it may feel impossible that you could ever muster sufficient
knowledge in that class to get to the level of teaching the subject, however, becoming a TA is as much about continuing your learning experience in a class/subject as it is teaching new students. For the sake of an example, General Chemistry is notorious due to the difficulty and quantity of material that the class puts forth in a semester. From a student’s perspective, every week they’re bombarded with 2-3 new topics related to stoichiometry and quantitative reasoning, chemical bonding, or reactivity among the many areas of chemistry, and in the process of taking the class, they are obliged to learn the material, internalize it and apply it in a fast-paced cyclic manner. This is the first place that the TA’s job comes into play. In a general chemistry class there may be hundreds of students, but only one professor, and so it’s impossible for the professor to answer every question, clarify every misconception, or help guide every student through a different logical process related to problem solving. However, if you add several dozen TAs into the mix, you now have a small army of students that have learned the material previously who can go on to teach several new students each about how they did so in addition to answering questions and clarifying misconceptions. As TAs we act as extensions of the professor and guide students to best practices for studying while also aiding in teaching new material.
In preparing each week to teach students about any subject in a class, there’s an act of recall that forces us to dig into our memories and apply our previous knowledge in a way that solves a new problem, “How do I help this student understand the topic at hand?”. At first this can seem incredibly daunting. “How can I teach someone about a subject when I barely remember it myself?”, is something which often comes to mind. So you find yourself rummaging and reading through your old notes, old problem sets, texts, and even asking fellow TAs and the professor to clarify things as you go along. In doing this, you have just brought yourself one step closer to mastery of the material. This process of recalling information, processing it in a way that you can explain it to others, and self-correcting your own misconceptions along the way solidifies the material in your head and makes it easier to recall the next time.
In addition to solidifying your grasp on the material of a given course, being a TA also has a profound self-development aspect in regards to your interactions with others. In any given field, mentorship and communication are important aspects that often correlate with success. Working as a TA gives you the opportunity to develop both of these skills simultaneously. While having a decent understanding of course material is important, being able to communicate with students is equally important and often the more challenging aspect of TA work. One has to be able to follow through another person’s thinking and anticipate their next move, correct or incorrect, and help guide them towards more logical processes that they can use in solving problems whether they’ve seen something like it before or not. Furthermore, we have to interact with students in a way that encourages them to want to learn, to believe in themselves, and to avoid self-doubt at every turn possible. So, we often have to act as mentors and counselors to our students to help them overcome the issues that aren’t directly related to course material, but that do have an impact on their learning in general. This can come in the form of empathizing and sympathizing by telling our own stories of struggle with the class or another class, or it can come in the form of pep-talks letting them know you’re on their team and you want them to succeed at learning the material, among many other methods. In having to put yourself in their shoes and motivating them to push on and also take breaks as needed, you inadvertently improve how you communicate with them and other students, and you begin forming meaningful mentor-like skills. This will change how you interact with others outside of the classroom as well; you’ll begin noting that encouraging others becomes second-nature, keeping a stolid face in spite of wild statements becomes easy, and you rapidly mature to someone “teacher”-like, in all the best ways.
In all this discussion, mentions of resumes and CV’s have been put off in favor of the more self-fulfilling aspects of being a TA. That’s not to say that the work doesn’t provide great fodder for a well-rounded resume; communication skills, leadership/mentorship skills, and being able to keep a room of 20+ people on task is definitely something to highlight. However, becoming a TA is something that has value beyond the standard resume checklist all college students keep. It’s a way to truly develop relationships that are lasting and skills that are applicable in any area of life. It goes beyond just saying you work well with others or you can take charge of a team, it demonstrates how you come up to the plate, face your fears and flaws, and work to deepen your knowledge while helping others. Altogether, working as a TA can be an incredibly rewarding experience on various levels, and to take part in the process of teaching others and then seeing them grow into TAs brings you great joy and satisfaction over the years. A solid recommendation for any person is to find a class you’re interested in, a course where the material was difficult for you but interested you enough to want to learn more, and find out about what opportunities there are to help with that course as a TA. Not all classes have undergraduate TAs, but a persuasive email never hurts, and you never know if you’re starting up a trend of having undergraduate TAs in a class that can go on to help a lot of future students. If given the opportunity, now, or next semester, or next year, take the chance and change someone’s life for the better as a TA.
Cisco Espinosa, ’22