Last semester about half of our TAs told me what they didn’t expect about TAing. I’ve extracted a few of the common points and included them here for your benefit.

1 You won’t know every answer

Students will come with installation issues you’ve never seen on OSs you don’t use.

Students will ask about how to debug strange errors you’ve never seen before.

Students will express confusion about corner cases of course concepts that you thought you understood until they showed you this part of them that you don’t.

Students will ask you to help them finish doing something they started in a way you’d never attempt and don’t really understand.

Students will use languages and tools that you thought you understood in ways you didn’t know they could be used.

And all of that is fine, it’s good, it’s expected. We didn’t hire you to be a magical oracle who knows the answer to every question. We hired you to help students think through their issues, to look up answers with them, to help them think out loud and approach the stress of being stuck with the confidence that comes from having an ally to be stuck with. We hired you to listen to your students’ concerns, and then keep listening until they start to answer their own questions. And every once in a while, along the way, you’ll have a chance to explain something or find an obscure bug for them, but that’s the exception, not the rule.

Most TAs are surprised to learn this aspect of their role (and have difficulty internalizing it even once they do), which suggests most students don’t know it either, leading to the next point:

2 Students and faculty want different things from TAs

We’ll have a full module on this later on, but know up front:

Many (though not all) students will expect you to help them on their homework. That is, they expect you to help them do their assignments. But we as faculty hope you will help students learn instead.

The assignments we give in CS are the practice we ask students to do. We hope that you, as a TA, will coach and guide students, but not do any part of their practice for them. When a learner finds some part of their practice to be tricky, a good coach doesn’t do that part for them but instead gives them more practice like that.

Some students will be upset when you make them do practice instead of taking it from them. Dealing with that discontent is, unfortunately, part of the job.

3 Your student are not like you

You’ll explain something in the way that made perfect sense to you, and your student will be totally confused.

You’ll have students come to you without having taken basic steps you would always have tried before seeking help.

You’ll have students who need several times as much time to understand something as you need.

You’ll have students who are confused by something so ingrained in you that you can’t understand how they don’t understand it.

The number-one attribute TAs reflect on needing to learn, and say made their time more pleasant once they did, is patience. The students may be your peers in every other way, but in your class they are your students, taking faltering steps where you can run. Let that happen; enjoy it; savor it, for in watching them learn comes the greatest reward of TAing.

4 Your supervisor is flawed

The standard path into becoming a university instructor does not include any instruction on how to design and teach classes. Faculty receive enough feedback on their lecturing that they tend to improve quickly there, but often get little if any feedback on other course-running skills, including course organization, communicating expectations and deadlines, designing assessments and rubrics, and supervising TAs. Welcome to TAing: the role where you get to see most of what faculty are worst at!

Exactly what this means for you will vary a lot by instructor, but expect to be asked to interpret unclear syllabi and assignment writueps; to grade using vague (or missing) rubrics; to help students learn topics that were introduced since you last took the course; and/or to deal with uncertain and changing deadlines for your own work. Sometimes under-informed faculty who don’t see the feedback you see as a TA may even assert that their bad practices and flaws are best practices and strengths.

If you are able, you are welcome to fill in these gaps in how your course is organized; but know that it is always OK, and often desirable, to route questions related to them back to the instructor. People tend to improve if given constructive feedback, so letting the instructor know what questions keep coming to you (possibly with some suggestions on how to reduce that flood) can help the instructor improve and can simplify your experience as a TA.

5 You’ll love it

I’ve read reflection papers on TAing from more than 500 TAs. Of those, three (0.6%) expressed discontent and an intention to not continue TAing. Even when I ask TAs to reflect on what was a struggle, more than half offer unsolicited comments about how great TAing was.

You’ll have plenty of struggles as a TA, and learn a lot about teaching, grading, other people, and yourself as a consequence. And, with very very high probability, you’ll love it and want to do more of it.