Mentor TAs

Teaching Assistants (TAs) are encourage to follw the Minnesota model by Mentor TAs. The following information is taken from the Mentoring Handbook given to new Mentor TAs. Click here for Introduction Click here for Job Description

Mentor TA Introduction

The position of the Mentor Teaching Assistant (mentor TA) at the University of Minnesota was born out of a grant proposal to the Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) in 1993. This proposal recognized that the Department of Physics at the University of Minnesota was doing an excellent job in creating expert physics researchers, while doing little to promote expert physics teaching. In an effort to rectify this oversight, the proposal to FIPSE was to create a Teaching Apprenticeship program in the Department of Physics. The introduction to the FIPSE grant illustrate this well:

From this description, the fundamental purpose of the mentor TA can be seen; to coach the graduate students as they apply active learning techniques to laboratory and discussion sections. Coach is the most important word in this description. Like anyone learning a new skill, the new TAs need to practice what they have been taught and then be gently prompted to improve. This coaching is the most important aspect of the mentor TA job. However, over the years several lessons have been learned which are described below.

Lesson 1: Two Mentor TAs

One of the first lessons learned was that there needed to be two mentor TAs. This need was demonstrated both logistically and practically. Logistically, it was quickly learned that a single mentor could work effectively with only 10 TAs. This was, in part, mitigated by the structure of our introductory physics courses, which have discussion sections meet on Thursday with cooperative group quizzes in the discussion sections every other week. It was learned that these group quiz weeks were not an effective time to mentor TAs in their discussion sections since the TAs were not teaching at these times.

To get around these problems, mentor TAs now observe TAs in their laboratory section during quiz weeks, and during non-quiz weeks, the TAs are coached in the discussion sections. However, with only eight class periods available on Thursday, this provides an upper limit to the number of TAs which can be coached by one mentor TA. Furthermore, the mentor TAs take classes and conduct research which inevitably interferes with the mentoring schedule. Two mentor TAs seem to alleviate most of the logistical difficulties.

There are also many practical reasons for having two mentor TAs. The most important reason is that the two mentors complement each other. This includes sharing ideas on coaching TAs, brainstorming topics for the All-TA meetings, and generally supporting each other in the job. Two mentor TAs also allow for flexibility in who mentors each TA. There have been occasions where one mentor TA was unable to mentor a graduate student for personality reasons. Having two mentors allows the mentoring relationship to continue between the second mentor and the graduate student. We have also found that having both a male and female mentor TA is useful to deal with possible gender-specific issues. The last reason for having two mentor TAs is that it allows an institutional history to occur. Currently, the mentor TA job is a two-year appointment with the terms staggered. In this manner, there is always a senior mentor TA to help the incoming mentor acclimate to the new job.

Lesson 2: Who to mentor

When the Mentor TAs first began coaching TAs, they saw every TA who was teaching an introductory course. This amounted to about 20 TAs per mentor. Given the logistical difficulties described earlier, some of the TAs were only seen once a quarter. This was unsatisfactory. To be effective the mentors must coach a TA minimally once every two weeks. The decision was then made to mentor graduate students on a volunteer basis. This was also unsuccessful because the TAs who needed the most coaching chose not to be coached. The solution was to mentor only the first year graduate students. This brought the number of TAs to be coached to a reasonable number and it allowed for the most effective use of resources.

Lesson 3: Trust

The most painful lesson learned was that mentoring requires that the TAs trust the mentors. If there is any doubt about motives of the mentors, the relationship fails. To help the mentors build rapport with the TAs, two additional responsibilities were given to the mentors. The first responsibility was an increased role in TA Orientation. The mentors now play a active part in each activity of the Orientation. They serve as graders, teachers, and role models for the TAs. In Orientation, the mentors clearly describe their job to the graduate students, demonstrate what a mentoring session would look like on themselves, and mentor the TAs after their peer-teaching activities. The second responsibility given to the mentors to improve trust was to organize a weekly All-TA meeting. This is a lunch meeting for graduate students only, where TAs could discuss issues relevant to their teaching, share ideas amongst each other, and communicate their concerns via the mentors to the lecturers. The role of the mentors were to facilitate those discussions and report TA concerns anonymously to the faculty.

Lesson 4: Accountability

One of the last big lessons learned was that the mentors needed to serve the physics department as well as the TAs in order for the physics faculty to trust the mentor TAs. Toward this end, the mentor TAs were assigned the responsibility of nominating first year TAs for the departmental TA award. Since the mentors coach all of the first year TAs, they are in a position to determine who is worthy of the award. The second responsibility given to the mentors was the obligation to report any continuation of inappropriate behavior in the classroom of the TAs. While both of these responsibilities could erode the trust between the mentors and the TAs, the TAs are reminded that the purpose is to maintain and reward quality. These responsibilities are also openly explained to the new TAs in Orientation.

Mentor TA Job Description

The following is the job description of the mentor TAs as it was given to the new graduate students in the 1995 TA Orientation. Details about each item of the mentoring job can be found in the next chapter of this manual; Job Specifics. Each year this description is updated by the two mentor TAs to account for experiences gained in the previous years and to reflect the personal style of the mentors. Presenting this description here is not meant to impede the dynamic and personal nature of the mentor TA job.

Your mentor TAs each work 20 hours a week to help you improve the skills you need to become a better TA which will ultimately improve the undergraduate education in the physics department.

Specifically, the duties of the mentor TAs are to:

If you ask them to, the mentor TAs will also:

Remember, like any instructional relationship, the mentor TA can provide you with ideas and suggestions, but the only impetus to improve your teaching lies within you.