Spotlight: TAs balance busy schedules, low pay

For many students, graduate school brings a heavy course load and demand for research. But for grad students who also work as undergraduate teaching assistants, it brings a host of other duties, too.

Many TAs interviewed said they have found balancing their own course work along with demands from the classes they help teach the biggest challenge of the job.

Abby Knerr helps professors in two sociology classes – Sociological Theory and Deviance and Control. She said her schedule is always full.

“Since I TA two classes, I’m required to attend four extra lectures a week, which does not include the time outside of regular class time I spend for the job,” Knerr said. “It’s really hard to make the time for my own class work.”

TAs Sean Goodison and Stephanie Tobin said they do not have the time they would like to devote to their own coursework.

“I always have an endless stream of papers to grade, and it seems like I’m doing many of my assignments a lot closer to deadlines than I would like,” said Goodison, who teaches three Sociology Research Methods labs.

Tobin grades students work in an Introduction to Sociology class. It is typical for her to have a pile of essays to mark during the busiest times in her semester because many of her final and midterm projects are due at the same time her students turn in theirs.

Other TAs said they have found the work gets easier over time. Katie Foreman, who leads discussion sections for Introduction to Microeconomics, said balancing coursework and her TA responsibilities is no easy task.

“Because I’ve done this so many times before, I’m able to use some of the material I’ve used in the past,” said Foreman, who has worked as a TA for four years. “Since I now have a bank of material I use, it’s a lot easier and less time consuming than it was when I first began.”

Goodison said he enjoys teaching three labs because he can relate to the students he instructs.

“I like this job because I enjoy helping people,” Goodison said. “It is particularly enjoyable because I have taken this same course and can understand the students’ problems with the work and the material.”

Foreman said leading undergraduate economics discussions helps her with her graduate studies because she gets back to the basics.

“I’ve learned the material so much through teaching it,” Foreman said. “At the graduate level, economics is very math oriented, and you move away from the basics of the subject. Through teaching on an undergraduate level, I’ve gotten a better grasp of the more practical rather than just technical aspect of the field.”

Knerr said her work as an undergraduate teaching assistant has increased her connection to sociology.

“I really enjoy seeing students getting excited by sociological ideas and being aware of social issues when they are presented with them for the first time,” Knerr said. “I remember how I was also excited by the same issues when first introduced to them and I really think it’s important to keep the spirit of sociology alive.”

Student interaction is a large part of the job for teaching assistants. Many TAs said it is important students develop a comfort level with them.

Goodison, whose main job function is grading papers, said he develops relationships with his students outside the classroom by sharing his experience as an undergrad.

Todd Andrews, a teaching assistant for an introductory international affairs class, said it can be difficult to gain respect from students so close to his own age.

“They don’t understand that we are without exception highly educated and knowledgeable people and that we are interested in our field of study and in them,” Andrews said.

Some TAs said students are more likely to approach them than the professor to ask questions or voice concerns about a course.

“I think students feel more comfortable coming to me when they have comments about the course or suggestions about what should be done to change certain aspects of the course,” Knerr said.

To become a graduate teaching assistant, students express an interest on their graduate school applications. Graduate departs award the positions to the most qualified applicants, said Carol Siegelman, associate vice president for research and graduate studies.

The position pays full tuition for graduate school and includes a stipend of about $5,000 a semester.

Some teaching assistants voiced frustration with the lack of benefits in GW’s package.

Although the funding allows him to support himself during the year, Andrews said the lack of health insurance is a big drawback.

“We are on our own for health insurance – a fact that considerably drains my resources,” Andrews said.

Knerr, who tutors on the side for extra money, also agreed the lack of health insurance is a significant problem.

While the pay is low, Tobin said, free school is a big bonus.

“The compensation is really not enough to be an incentive,” Tobin said. “Unfortunately, it’s not enough to live on, but the free tuition is a huge break.”

But other TAs are happy with their pay.

“I am in serious financial need, so the tuition benefit was exactly what I needed – to not have to take out thousands of dollars in loans,” Goodison said. “The compensation is adequate and overall I am content.”

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