TA Training in the Math Department

by Herman Gluck

The Teacher Training Program in the Penn Mathematics Department aims to provide immediate help to beginning graduate students before they start teaching, and continuing help to all graduate students throughout the year. It evolved to its present structure after experimentation here and consultation with leaders of similar programs at other schools, and has been functioning in roughly the format described below for the past half dozen years.

We've organized ourselves so that the program is administered by a faculty member chosen by the department chairman, and he in turn is assisted by the departmental undergraduate and graduate chairmen, and by four senior graduate students who are themselves exceptionally successful and skilled teachers. These four graduate students are the "make-it-or-break-it" backbone of the program, and we select them very carefully. Each year we aim to choose two with prior experience in TA training, and two who are new to it.

At the end of August, a week before classes begin, three successive days are devoted to the first stage of the Teacher Training Program. Follow -up during the academic year involves videotaping, classroom visits and group and individual meetings.

First a word about the scope of our program. In the Math Department, we've got about 35-40 TAs. Most teach recitation sections for freshman and sophomore calculus or problem sessions for junior level courses, in each case assisting the faculty who are reponsible for the lectures and the overall conduct of the course. In addition, some TAs teach full calculus courses during the summer. Each year, our training program involves 10 to 20 graduate students, who are either new to teaching or have been invited back for further training.

It Starts with Pre-Semester Training

The pre-semester training program begins on a Wednesday morning, with a brief introduction by the faculty leaders. The very first thing we stress is attitude. "Love teaching...and let it show," we say. "Be genuinely concerned for the well-being and learning of your students... and let it show. If you can't feel this way," we tell our prospective TAs, "then you need to consider seriously whether you are heading down the right career path."

Then we get down to the nitty-gritty, and turn the program over to the four senior graduate students, who conduct demonstration teaching sessions displaying various styles for leading the recitation sections attached to our calculus courses. One style is mostly lecturing with some student involvement, another has students working in groups together at their desks, yet another has some students coming to the blackboard to demonstrate solutions to homework problems, and finally there is the three-ring circus, with all students at the blackboard at the same time, and the TA as ringmaster.

The first time I saw our master TAs conduct this session, I was flabergasted at how good they were. While demonstrating the different styles of teaching, they made everyone else in the audience (including faculty) play the role of an undergraduate, with the new graduate students in particular given scripted questions to ask. Ten minutes into the session, by prearrangement, one of the old hands let out an obnoxious yawn. The TA in charge didn't miss a beat, but turned to the new graduate students and discussed the problem of keeping everybody awake at an early morning recitation section. Minutes later, another secret collaborator pulled out a newspaper and started reading. Of course, the TA in charge then launched into a discussion of how to handle such situations. I was secretly proud of myself for having the good sense to select such wonderful leaders and then to stay out of their way.

Just before lunch, the graduate students watch a short video of an actual class taught by an older and experienced graduate student, and we follow this with an explicit discussion of all the attitudes and techniques worth emulating.

During lunch break, the participants are given a list of simple cal-culus problems to look over, which they will be asked to present in afternoon sessions.

Then we divide the trainees into four small groups, each to be led by one of the senior graduate students. In these groups, the students present solutions to the problems given to them at lunchtime, and everyone else in the room plays the role of an undergraduate, pushing the student playing the role of teacher to explain everything as clearly as possible. The involved faculty rotate among these rooms, contributing to the process. At the end of this session, the new students are given a list of more complicated calculus problems to take home and prepare for the next day.

The morning of the second day resembles the afternoon of the first, only this time the participants present solutions to the more substantial problems which they have prepared overnight. Afterwards, we discuss the good and the bad of what we've heard and seen. The group leaders try to emphasize that there are a number of routes to good teaching, and that it is possible to be a good teacher while being true to your own personality--as opposed to mimicking your favorite professor. We also stress: be prepared! It is the height of arrogance, we think and we say, to bring students into class as a captive audience and not be thoroughly prepared.

After lunch, the participants are divided into two groups, each led by two senior graduate students, and they discuss a whole range of problems associated with teaching, some ordinary--how to structure the recitation hour, how to keep effective records of class performance, how to deal with student complaints; and some quite delicate--how to obtain help for students in emotional distress, how to deal with harrassment, how to interact effectively with the professor in charge of the course, and so on. Prepared skits by the master TAs encourage discussion. Again the involved faculty rotate between the two groups.

The third day is devoted entirely to an introduction to Maple, the numerical and symbolic calculating program which is currently embedded in our calculus instruction.

And the Follow-up Is...

(1) Classroom visitation of all TAs by faculty members. We now do this at the beginning of October and aim to finish before Fall Break. All calculus professors visit the TAs teaching for them, and try to sit down with them the same day for one-on-one discussion. Our goal is to catch problems early and help our TAs finish the semester on a positive note, and with a positive self-image.

(2) A lunch meeting with all the new graduate student teachers in the middle of the first semester, to hear problems and share advice in a group setting.

(3) Videotaping of the TAs in the classroom. Tapes become the property of the student teacher, who is free to view them alone or with advisors of his or her choice. TAs may be taped again to see the changes in their performance.

I can't say enough good things about videotaping! Several years ago I arranged to videotape a particular student on both a Tuesday and the immediately following Thursday. After the videotaping on Tuesday, we both watched the entire tape and discussed it in exquisite detail, as if we were coaching a public performance. We stopped the tape many times for extended discussion of content, style, teacher-student interaction, language, voice, body motion, posture, and so on. There was plenty of room for improvement. Then we did it again on Thursday and watched the tape a second time. I will not say much about the changes, because they cannot be believed except by doing this experiment yourself. But the result of Thursday was so good that we now use excerpts from this second tape as a demonstration video during our TA training.

A parting message: Come visit us during our next TA training session, Wednesday-Friday, August 27-29, 1997. You can contact me by e-mail I'll give you the details. Also, if you run a TA training program in your own department, I'd love to hear about it, perhaps visit while it's going on, and steal any ideas I can.

Talk About Teaching is a series conducted by the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society. Dr. Gluck is professor of mathematics, a recipient of the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching, and director of the Math Department's TA Training Program.


Volume 43 Number 27
March 25, 1997

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