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Diary of a History TA: Reflecting upon the Rewards

Posted by Neal Adolph
24 January 2014 - 3:02pm

The rewards for being a Teaching Assistant are few and far between. I knew this to be true before I came to graduate school and signed up for this meagre means of sustaining my studies - made possible only with the additional support of scholarships and bursaries and research assistant positions - because I had experienced it when I was teaching high school social studies in a small city in the prairies. I also suspect that this is true of all jobs. Our warm fuzzies come in the form of employment, of money, of the things that money can buy (or the things we often wish we could buy if we were getting more money for our time). Funny how these warm fuzzies are not warm for long.

But the ones that matter, that make you secretly smile and remind you that you are doing something good and valuable and that you are doing it well, those are the ones that can motivate you for another week or two. For a moment your job feels like a vocation. Pleasing, even.

Like I said, these moments are rare for teaching assistants. But I had one late last semester, when a former student walked by my office - quite accidentally it seemed - and stepped in for a quick chat. It didn’t take long for the chat to descend into normal conversations had between a former student and former teacher - what are you doing? Looking forward to the holidays? What classes are you taking? - because there isn’t much else to chat about, really. It is the only thing I know we have in common.

I remember this student well. She was quiet in the corner, slow to respond to questions. She listened intently to other ideas and answers, and took them all in. When she spoke it was quietly, and her voice always lifted at the end of the statement like when a sentence without the format of a question could become a question. She was willing to be wrong, but she was listening carefully and so didn’t really think she was. She wanted my approval.

I always give out approval to students unless they are flat-out wrong. Sometimes it is a complicated approval followed by a warping of their answer that I can manipulate to my own interests. Sometimes the answers you get aren’t quite the responses that you are looking for. You take what you can get and then you make out of it what you can. This is particularly true of when you ask complicated questions - apparently I do this. They are both historical and philosophical and methodological in scope; sometimes my students ask me to make something simpler, I say I don’t know how, and then we push through and get to somewhere near where they need to be. But all of this is an unnecessary aside.

This student is talented. She visits me at least once a semester, and it is often in a manner that looks accidental, as though she is on her way to visit a professor during their precious office hours. Then she stays for twenty minutes.

Last semester she asked me to be a reference for her application study overseas. Absolutely, I said, warm fuzzies swelling up inside my chest. I would love to, I said. 

I knew that this student liked me. I was her first TA. Her first History TA - and history was her favourite subject. So getting liked by her was not a complicated job. I didn’t think that she liked me enough to be a reference for her skills as a student to the university’s international exchange program. In retrospect, I should have asked her why she asked me to help her out, so that I could acquire some more warm fuzzies to nourish me through till the next drought; but you can’t be too selfish about these things or else they won’t ever come at all.

Instead, in reflection, I am reminded that teachers, even if they are “only” teaching assistants, are always mentors as well. Our conduct matters; it even has the potential to inspire. It is always relational. And treating people with respect, kindness, and even adding some humour to the challenges of being a first or second or third or fourth year undergraduate student (for all of the years are challenging in those moments when you are in them) is just as important as remembering how to balance questions with answers, activities with discussion and skills teaching with abstract explorations.

 Photo:Classroom of Laidley Spring School on the Matador Co-operative farm about 40 miles north of Swift Current, Sask. Teacher is R. L. Moen. Credit: Gar Lunney/National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque/Library and Archives Canada/PA-159647. Copyright: Expired