If the past is a predictor of the future, most of you will TA for 3 semesters, graduate, and never TA again. What, then, do I hope you learn and remember in this course and in your time as a TA that will stay with you all of your life?

1 The world needs more teachers of computing

While TAing is not a career path, there is a huge need of people who do pick a career path involving teaching computing. The demand for CS education far exceeds the supply of CS educators1, and that becomes even more pronounced when the broader space of computation (including programming, software engineering, computer engineering, scripting, CS+X, digital policy and governance, etc) is considered.

I hope many of you will consider how you can add teaching computing to your career objectives. Be it formally to children, youth, young adults, or older adults, there are both career and volunteer side-projects in this area in dire need of experts such as yourselves.

2 Humans are complicated, but understandable

Humans are complicated; each is different, but each is understandable. I’ve tried to teach you a sampling of this truth, explaining a bit about how the brain works and how individual experiences of the same situation differ and how you can learn what people are thinking, all focusing on how understanding this truth can help make you a better TA.

But this truth goes far beyond what you’ll do as a TA. The same understanding that helps you understand and help a stressed-out student who is hoping that you’ll tell them the answer instead of teaching them the topic will also help you understand and help a stressed-out client who is hoping that you’ll remove their problem instead of providing realistic digital tools and teaching them to use them. It helps you understand people from cultures unlike your own, people who believe things you disagree with, people who are upset by something you find normal, and in many other situations. My hope is it will help you avoid the temptation to oversimplify and encourage you to continue to engage with others.

3 You become expert by training your brain

You become expert by training your brain to pre-process the world in useful, correct, and desirable ways.

Your brain always pre-processes the world. That’s what makes a cacophony of photons and sound waves and neural contact-detector impulses into a perception of a world. It’s what creates habits and impulses and instincts and expertise. It’s why you can look at

for(int i; i< {
    3:          )

and instinctively know something is wrong, even though no part of that is part of your biological, congenital instincts.

If you don’t control how this pre-processing is developed, your germane load mostly just automates what you do and see, resulting in implicit biases; but if you are conscious about them, you can train your own (and others’) to achieve useful behaviors; that, in essence, is what learning (and teaching) is.

As you develop your schemata, you become an expert. That changes the basic functionality of your thinking, meaning you no longer think the way you did as a novice. Your basic experience of the world is mutable.

4 Lasting success is through the steady dedicated course of a lifetime

Lasting success comes not [from] short frenzied outburst of emotion, but through the tranquil, steady dedicated course of a lifetime.2 There is value in outbursts of emotion, but cognitive growth comes from being methodical and diligent. And that, in turn, means becoming comfortable with the idea that both

  1. suboptimal situations may persist for some time, and
  2. optimality may be being approached during that time

These principles are obvious in some situations, but for some reason most of us have trouble internalizing them about ourselves. This course has listed dozens of things you should do, things you shouldn’t do, principles you should bear in mind, problems you should try to overcome, even entire modules on how to find more things to do. What do you do with these?

I’ll tell you what I do: I have a list. An ever-growing list of things I could improve, things I could do better, things I do now and should stop doing; habits to develop and habits to break. The more I understand teaching and myself, the more items get added to this list. But that’s OK, that’s even good, because I’m also always working on a few items from that list, getting better at doing them, until I can remove them from the list and move forward.

Any lasting success takes time, patience, and comfort with the idea that there is always more to do.

5 There’s always someone to mentor

Wherever you go, whatever you do, there will always be someone to mentor. We don’t often refer to TAing as mentoring; much of this course is devoted to the idea that TAs are educators. But you’re also mentors, students a semester ahead of those you are helping trying to make their path into the subject a bit easier than was yours.

I hope many of you will go into education, but I know all of you will go into something where mentoring is possible. You don’t have to be an expert to mentor; you just have to be a step ahead, and willing to engage, and sensitive to the fact that it is their good you are trying to build, not your own.

Next semester you’ll be a mentor for a new batch of TAs. We don’t have a TA-mentor course like we do this student-mentor course, but I hope you’ll find ways to take what you’ve learned here and use it to help the next batch of TAs, and then the next batch of interns, the next batch of new hires, the next batch of scholars or engineers or managers or policy makers or whatever it is you become.

Let us all commit to mentoring the next batch of humans to be better than us, avoid our mistakes, and move the world forward.

  1. See, for example, this report by the National Academies↩︎

  2. Adlai Stevenson (1952), Speech to the American Legion convention↩︎