The sink-or-swim life of a TA

Learning, learning to teach, teaching, working, repeat…

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Illustration by RESLUS

By: Alexander Kenny, Peak Associate 

Teaching assistants, or TAs, are some of the lynchpins of SFU’s educational infrastructure. They lead busy, difficult lives: outside of their jobs, a lot of them pursue their own education, work other jobs, and juggle the rest of their lives. Being a TA is often a sink-or-swim situation, and without the proper support, taking the job can feel like starting off in the deep end.

To gain a better understanding of what being a TA is like and what challenges they face, The Peak sat down with Alicia Massie, a TA from the School of Communication at SFU.

When asked to outline the average week of a TA, Massie said it depended on a million factors, but she gave us an example from her own experience.

Imagine a week where a TA’s students have nothing due in class. The TA would review course schedules, check emails, go to school, attend lectures, lead several tutorials, go home, write notes about what happened in class, send emails to follow up with students and the course’s professor, and then Monday would be over. The rest of the week would be all about prepping what was necessary for the next class, staying in contact with the instructor (their supervisor), and preparing any materials for the next class. Between all that, they would be taking their own classes, attending their other job(s), and trying to — maybe — take some time to breathe.

“That week would be pretty low-key,” Massie said.

If something were due in her class, she would allot about five hours for every day that week for reading through and marking assignments. “Basically when things have to be graded, your life goes out the window,” she says.

Massie discussed how people become TAs and are assigned to classes.

“The number one priority person to get a job, if they want, is a graduate student within their own department.”

Often, graduate students rely on TA work to fund their graduate education in the first place. Many acceptance letters will guarantee a graduate student at least one course each semester to TA.

However, if there are more jobs than there are internal graduate students, then hiring will follow a hierarchy encoded in TSSU’s collective bargaining agreement. Generally: first graduate students outside the department are offered the position, then undergraduate students, and finally non-students. Massie noted that this is the process that has been negotiated into the TSSU’s collective.

“If you’re just a decent grad student who needs to work, you should get it. So there shouldn’t really be any exceptions. But it does happen,” she adds with a laugh.  

When we ask Massie about training, her answer comes quickly.

“Almost none,” she said. “It’s real tough.”

According to Massie, TAs receive almost no formal training before starting the position. The TSSU and the Teaching and Learning Centre offer one optional full day of workshops called TATF Day. These workshops cover topics like how to give constructive feedback, how to give a territorial acknowledgement, and how to support students in a writing intensive class.

“That training is the only training provided to TAs and TMs, and it was unfortunately something that the union had to pay for ourselves because the university didn’t want to give anything to us.”

“The university has not given us any training, and the only training we have, the union has had to do,” Massie said. “We would really love to be able to offer more comprehensive training, and have the university help fund it. We also teach most of their students, they should give us some training.”

“We are actively fighting for more training,” Massie said. “It’s a really tough job, and nobody walks into teaching undergraduates and is naturally good at it.”

Instead, many of the teaching skills that TAs have come from on-the-job experience.

“It’s a fabulous job,” Massie said. “I love it. And I think a lot of grad students do go into grad school because they want to teach. It’s really an amazing opportunity and it’s one of the best things about grad schools.”

In discussing the guidance that TAs receive, Massie said that TAs should have a relationship with their course instructor as support. “In a perfect world, [the course instructor] would be a senior faculty member, and they can sort of help you.”

However, relationships between professors and TAs are just as varied as those between profs and students.  Sessionals, for example, are in a strange place since they are often graduate students themselves.

“The sessional, a lot of the time, has really been thrown into a lot of work, without a lot of support. They often don’t make as much money, they don’t have the departmental or institutional support that you would if you were a prof, and you also have this TA help a lot of the time so you have to figure out that relationship, and all of your students.

“It’s a great relationship a lot of the time,” Massie said. “But it definitely can be very complicated.”

Much of the help that TAs receive comes from the social network between TAs in a department. This is how TAs gain tips and insight into how to do their job. Massie finds especially crucial for new TAs who can sometimes be thrown into classes they’ve just recently taken themselves

“That’s one of the best things about the union,” Massie said. “When we throw events it’s a lot more than drinking beer and meeting people, it’s like building solidarity between people from different departments and with different classes and different experiences so that we can say ‘hey, how do you do things’ and ‘what’s the way that you do it?’ since we don’t have formal training.”

The TSSU also assists TAs with employment issues, harassment issues, and offers plenty of other services to their members.

Massie describes her own experience as a TA glowingly. She considers herself lucky in the experiences she has had, the staff she has been able to work with, and the things she has been able to do. However, that doesn’t stop her from seeing institutional problems.

“This is what’s kind of frustrating, in my book, is that you might get lucky and you might get a really good prof and you might be in a department that provides you with support. But on an institutional level, from the university, there isn’t a framework,” says Massie.

“There isn’t a framework of support where they’re like, ‘Listen, these grad students do the vast majority of face-to-face teaching contact with our undergrads. Let’s figure out how we can help them do the best job they can and help our undergraduates get the best teaching experience.’ That framework doesn’t exist.”

Another issue for TAs, according to Massie, is that new TAs are often placed in introductory-level courses, since they require the least amount of very specific knowledge. However, this also means that they are thrown into the courses with the largest number of students. Many of these students have little to no university experience at the start of the course.

For TAs, these classes also involve balancing their work relationships with multiple TAs in the course, and an instructor who is also juggling a huge amount of students. Massie describes the situation as a catch-22:  “the newest TAs get the toughest jobs.”

When discussing the average TA contract, Massie noted that most TAs only get one course a semester.

“A standard contract if you want to work enough in a semester to afford to live is a five base unit contract… And that’s sort of your typical five-ish tutorials, maybe four, maybe three, depending on the students, then you go to lectures, have office hours, and you mark maybe up to 100 essays or something,” said Massie. “That is a standard contract and works out to about $750 per paycheque, so $1,500 a month. So, not a lot.”

Each contract is based on “contact hours” in which a TA is involved, which includes, tutorials, class time, office hours, grading, and prep work. These hours are tallied, added together, and divided by the number of hours in one unit. This determines how much a TA is paid. The idea behind this system is to make the payout less arbitrary than it might be if it simply counted the amount of classes a TA worked.

“It’s a little bit complicated,” she admitted.

Most TAs don’t make enough to depend solely on their TA paycheques, and so many of them work other jobs to be able to live and pay their own tuition. TAs might find other work on campus, work as research assistants for their supervisors, or find other jobs off campus. On top of that, they’re in graduate school the whole while.  

“But I like it,” she emphasizes as we wrap up our conversation.  

The Peak also sat down with Lillian Deeb, a Chief Steward at the Teaching Support Staff Union with years of experience as a TA in the School of Communication. Read more online at the-peak.ca.

Deeb explained that what is currently at the top of the TSSU’s list of issues is exactly what Massie described as the biggest issue: a lack of training and support framework. She explained a need for more support being needed for TAs throughout the semester as well as more thorough training.

Deeb also said that she is an advocate for having a Head TA, who is paid more than the average TA and tasked with being a continuously available resource to other TAs — which right now is a kind of labour that TAs are doing amongst themselves for free. She recalls having a Head TA being her saving grace when she had started working as a TA.

“There are always, inevitably, things that are going to come up, especially when you’ve never experienced the classroom from that side before,” said Deeb. “You’re never going to know what to expect, you might not even be able to conceive of the questions that you might want to know on that very first day before you’ve met any of your students.”

Another key issue for Deeb is making sure TAs are paid properly. Not only is working as a TA crucial for graduate students to fund their degrees, but graduate students are essentially paying for the opportunity to work, since the TSSU collective agreement notes that being a TA is graduate student work.

Deeb also brought The Peak up to speed on the ongoing, constant discussions between the university and the TSSU about increased training and support for TAs. She mentioned that TSSU had recently been invited to give feedback on training and support as part of a larger push across the university to support staff, and that the university has been receptive in these discussions.

“Obviously, the university is trying to do as much as they can with as little money as they can. That’s the nature of a budget,” Deeb said. “But these practical steps are something we’ve been suggesting for a long time. People always respond well.”  

For example, she described a recent discussing with the deans of FASS, who were considering putting on a faculty-specific training day.

“The conversation always seems to get stuck between ‘we want another training day’ and ‘yeah, but that’s not enough. How do we make sure there’s support all the time?’” Deeb said.