Teaching Stories

Supporting Teaching Assistants

For some students, their teaching assistants are the biggest source of contact time at University. They co-run our labs, co-deliver field schools, lead reading groups and deliver workshops. We depend on them to offset assessment workloads and even cover administrative duties associated with teaching. In effect, they are a vital resource for many taught programmes.

In practice, however, they can be an afterthought of our teaching planning. An ever-growing body of news coverage also details how these workers can be exploited too easily in the big machine of academia. This disproportionately affects our part-time staff and postgraduate students.

When I acted as Project Manager for the recent rollout of four interdisciplinary Bristol Futures units, one of the priorities was to implement ethical principles, transparent processes and clear communications about and for our hourly paid teachers (HPTs). In this blog, I share some of the outputs of this work and suggest top tips to consider when planning your teaching.

Principle: School requirements

In some Schools, there are more PhD students than teaching assistant roles available. In others, the reverse is true. The first principle is therefore to consider the School’s normal operations and requirements for HPTs.

When recruiting PhDs, we requested their supervisor’s approval. That way we could be sure that the student’s studies would not be adversely affected by their commitment to teaching. It also allowed up to check that the School would not be adversely affected.

Principle: Pay

Pay is the second big ticket item. In some Schools, HPTs are paid different rates of pay depending on the type of work they are doing. These rates are highly variable and sometimes don’t reflect the nature of the role.

A huge ongoing issue is how the HPT workloads are mismatched to their allocated paid hours. For example, a HPT who is allocated 10 hours to correct essays that actually take 20 hours to complete is cutting their real wage in half.

Our Bristol Futures units planning mapped out all hours we asked HPTs to complete. This included teaching preparation and delivery, meeting with unit directors, answering emails, and post-unit evaluation.

Anonymous feedback from the HPTs noted that this principle had the greatest impact on their positivity towards the experience. One commented that it was the first time they had felt respected by the University for their teaching delivery.

Principle: Training

Training for your unit should cover whatever type of teaching is needed, such as flipped classroom, webinars, labs and seminars. A good principle is to set aside time ahead of term to check that HPTs know what’s expected of them and have the training to deliver on those expectations. This is especially important for novice teachers.

Things to consider:

PhD students are generally required to undertake the Starting to Teach training session to support consistent quality teaching across all Faculties. But, did you know that some HPTs are paid to undertake this, while others are not? If you require your HPTs to do any training, it’s a good principle to pay them for the time dedicated to this!

Training is not just in support of teaching on your unit, it’s also an opportunity for HPTs to develop their skills (continuous professional development). Another principle is to encourage HPTs to apply to undertake the internationally-recognised teaching qualification scheme via the CREATE Scheme(Cultivating Research and Teaching Excellence). This includes a bespoke qualification route designed for PGRs.

Principle: Processes

The recruitment cycle for HPTs, along with budget planning, can take up considerable academic time. You can check with your School Manager to request additional staff resource to support you, and also ensure that your HPT budget is approved.

To support recruitment of the best HPTs:

Information for Managers on appointing, paying, reporting and managing HPTs:

Once you have your HPTs in place, you also need to ensure that they understand how to claim their hours via ERP. Guidance is available from HR: https://www.bristol.ac.uk/hr/hpt/infohpts/. As most HPTs are PhD students, they don’t always get central notifications on how these deadlines can change at certain times of the year. It’s a good idea to set a calendar reminder for HPT claim submissions that match your School’s monthly financial schedule.

Finally, regular evaluation can ensure that any issues are flagged and addressed. Just as you would ask for unit evaluation, it’s good practice to check in with HPTs about their experience teaching on your unit(s), here’s a template online questionnaire.

Further reading:

DeChenne, S. E., Lesseig,K., Anderson, S. M., Li, S. L., Staus, N. L. & Barthel, C. 2012 “Toward a Measure of Professional Development for Graduate Student Teaching Assistants” The Journal of Effective Teaching 12(1) pp: 4-19 https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1092199

Gardner, G.E. & Jones, M. G. 2011 “Pedagogical Preparation of the Science Graduate Teaching Assistant: Challenges and Implications” Science Educator 20(2) pp: 31-41 https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ960634.pdf

Gedye, S. Winter, J. & Turner, R. 2014 “Inequalities in teaching opportunities for graduate teaching assistants” HEA Annual Conference 2014 / AdvanceHE https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/inequalities-teaching-opportunities-graduate-teaching-assistants

Whitchurch, C. 2013 “Reconstructing Identities in Higher Education. The Rise of Third Space Professionals” (Routledge: New York & London) (ebook https://bris.on.worldcat.org/oclc/821176545)

Ash Tierney

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