Sometimes you encounter students who are, in one way or another, in some kind of trouble. Three cases here are common enough to deserve special attention:

1 Looming Deadline

We all have a tendency to assume we can finish on our own until it becomes so late that it is evident even to us that we can’t. From the TA’s perspective, this creates a steady stream of students who ask for help on their remaining 10 hours of work 1 hour before the deadline.

When you diagnose that a student has more work to do than they have time to do it in, do the following three things:

  1. Tell the student that this is the case.

    The sooner they are made aware of the impossibility of their original goal (on-time full-credit work) the sooner they can select a more realistic goal.

  2. Ask them what they want:

    1. To maximize learning

      If this is their pick, then ignore the deadline and help them learn. When they express frustration with this, remind them of their choice and that learning takes time.

    2. To maximize points

      If this is their pick, remind them that you can’t do the assignment (or part of it) for them, then ask what question you might be able to help them understand that will help them fix a point-blocker soon.

  3. Based on what you’ve seen, why are they missing this deadline?

    1. Because they are behind in the course or being unable to keep up with all their schoolwork?

      Tell the instructor about this student. They may be able to provide additional resources to help the student catch up or learn to better manage their time or remove some of the demands from their time.

    2. Because they procrastinated starting?

      No further action needed. If you think you can encourage them to start the next assignment earlier, feel free, but we do not know of best-practice ways to do that effectively.

2 Blame TAs

Sometimes students will say things that suggest you, the TA, are at fault for their problems. This takes many forms: it’s your fault, you told me to do X, TA X was so helpful, can I wait for them instead?, can’t you just X?, etc.

If this blaming gets in the way of them learning, we suggest two reactions:

  1. Tell them they are blaming you.

    Surely they know this already, right? Well, maybe not. Sometimes the blame was a gut reaction of a frustrated or disappointed mind, and reminding the student of healthier mental habits will be effective. A useful way to do this is to echo their words back to them so they can hear what they just said.

    Don’t let this turn into a blame war, though. Shaming the student for their behavior or performance is unlikely to be productive.

  2. Transfer the blame to something or someone else.

    Blame transference is a powerful tool; it can show you as their fellow sufferer under an oppressive, unfair system (instead of the dictator keeping them down), resulting in them becoming open to discussing what they can do within the system instead of ranting against it.

    A simple way to do this is to blame your course instructor. I totally get what you are saying, but the instructor makes these rules, so what can I do? Instructors do it too: I see your point, but the syllabus says… as if the instructor didn’t write the syllabus and couldn’t change it if needed.

    Note, the point here is not to escape blame. If you did something wrong, own up to that. The point is to change the conversation from one about blame to one about next steps.

3 Excessive emotion

Life is hard, and when school is a big part of life then school is a big part of that hardness. Which means that sometimes you’ll interact with students who are going through a patch so rough that some of their frustration spills out around you. They might be unreasonably frustrated, or crying, or angry.

What can you do when this happens? The best reaction depends on the severity of the situation: from mildest to most drastic, you should be aware of at least the following strategies:

  1. Ignore it.

    A little emotion now and again isn’t anything to get upset over, and after they vent they may feel better. Emphasis here is on the word little: don’t ignore anything inappropriate.

  2. Help them calm down.

    Sometimes you can help people calm down by

    • Lending a listening ear
    • Suggesting you look a bit tense; let’s take a moment, stretch out, take a deep breath… (see our notes on this from the session on CLT)
    • Assuring you can do this or we’ll get through this or it will all work out—as long as you believe those assertions…
    • Simply observing you seem a little stressed may enough for them to self-calm.

    We don’t recommend going too much beyond this; you’re a TA, not a counselor or social worker, and keeping that difference in mind will help you perform your job well.

  3. Call it out.

    Most big actions of frustration, anger, and anxiety are at least partially subconscious and habit-based. Before trying anything more drastic, tell them directly that what they are doing is inappropriate and why.

    • You seem a bit worked up
    • Did you really just …?
    • There’s no call to be mean about it

    It is often helpful, in calling it out, to acknowledge receipt of the message they are making with their outburst: I understand that you are frustrated, but please don’t yell at me.

  4. Bring in help.

    Humans are sympathetic beings, so it is likely that if you interact with an irate student you will become somewhat upset yourself. Additionally, many people think more clearly when they can observe their interactions through the eyes of spectator. Wave over another TA (or, if you see another TA in what looks like a tense moment, go join them without being asked); often, that act alone is enough to help calm things down.

  5. Disengage.

    Don’t stay in a bad situation. If the student is not calming down and you are not making progress and/or are being negatively effected by your interaction with them, disengage.

    • You seem worked up; take a break, calm down, and call me over again
    • My job is to answer questions, not listen to you being upset
    • Or just leave

    But don’t just disengage; if you are not planning to return to them, then get them help in another way (e.g. by suggestion 4, 6, or 7 from this list).

  6. Inform the instructor.

    Particularly if a student is repeatedly or uncharacteristically emotional, let the course instructor know. They may be able to work with the student and engage others who can support them in ways you cannot. Students may also find it easier to open up about their concerns to professors than to TAs.

    Also inform the instructor if you are negatively impacted by the exchange, either directly or by a sense of disappointment that you handled it poorly. Instructors care you you too and can provide case-specific support and guidance.

  7. Call UVA Police

    This probably seems like a big jump, but with as many students as we have, it is likely one or more of you will need to know this at some point during your TAing.

    When should you call campus police?

    • If the student is threatening (or seems likely) to cause harm to themselves, you, or others.
    • If the student is abusive or disturbing other students by their emotional outbreak and does not stop when requested.
    • If the student is responding to requests to calm down by becoming more worked up instead.

    This is not as dramatic as it sounds. Campus police typically receive training in how to respond to all kinds of issues that instructional staff cannot handle, including over-stressed students. The (thankfully few) instances I have had TAs describe to me of when they engaged the police all had positive outcomes, not just in the moment but for the long-term well-being of the student in question too.