Career Center

It's only a few weeks into the semester, but you may already be cringing at the thought of teaching even one more class-especially if you've got the type of pupils who purposefully ask questions to get you off track, quibble over their grades after every quiz or spend more time complaining than paying attention to your lectures.

Preventing students from turning an orderly class into chaos is a worry for many graduate students, and can be most challenging for those only a few years older than their students, says University of Oklahoma psychologist Lisa Frey, PhD, who supervises several teaching assistants (TAs).

How can you stand up to a roomful of students who know that you're "only" a graduate assistant?

Taking charge of your own classroom starts by taking responsibility for everything that goes on in it, whether you're a teaching assistant for a professor or responsible for your own course, says Frey.

"Go in and talk about the course in terms of your rules, your guidelines, your assignments-instead of 'I can't do anything about this because it's a rule the professor has,'" says Frey. "You have to own the material or the students don't see you as anything but a conduit."

Indeed, being confident in your ability to lead students and make classroom decisions can go a long way to a productive semester, say graduate students.

"The more comfortable you are when you go in, the better off you're going to be," says third-year counseling psychology student Rita Conger, who as a TA was supervised by Frey. "If you're nervous, they can smell it like a dog."

While you can get a lot of mileage out of just being assertive, there are other steps she and others advise taking to maintain your authority in the classroom-and without turning into a tyrant.

LAY DOWN THE LAW

There's no better time to establish your authority than on the first day of class. Set out clear expectations, dress professionally to make a good first impression and be prepared, advises Frey.

"You have to be organized, you have to know the syllabus and you have to know what you're willing to be flexible on and what things you're not," she says.

For example, be sure that your syllabus includes your policies on:

  • Late assignments

  • Missed exams

  • Absences

  • Academic dishonesty

  • How assignments and tests are graded

  • How to challenge a grade

  • How final grades are tabulated

Moreover, you may want to ask students what they expect of you, advises University of Mississippi psychologist Kenneth Sufka, PhD, winner of the university's outstanding teaching award. Then, incorporate those expectations into class policies. For example, if students say they want you to be an honest, fair grader, tell them you expect academic honesty in their own work, Sufka says.

Whether you create shared expectations or prescribe them in a syllabus, reviewing the policies during the first class and insisting that students consistently follow them will help you avoid problematic situations-such as debates over grading or make-up exams-later on, explains Virginia Wickline, a fifth-year clinical psychology student at Emory University.

"I like to give students very clear objectives for their assignments as well," Wickline adds. "If they have to summarize a journal article, I'll give them a handout that tells them the breakdown for those 100 points. Making assignments objective helps reduce the number of questions that they have in grading."

ENFORCE CLASS POLICIES

No matter how clear you are about class policies, there will invariably be students who skip exams, hand in every paper late and still ask for leniency-something that Frey says can take new TAs by surprise.

"Because students that come into a doctoral program tend to be more responsible, more organized and more committed to learning, it sometimes catches them off guard that all the undergraduates aren't going to be that committed," she explains.

Either way, Frey adds, you must be comfortable with holding students to the consequences outlined in your class policies. Making an exception for a student whose paper is late because he broke up with his girlfriend might produce a suspicious number of broken-hearted students the next time an assignment is due, Frey says.

For that reason, Wickline will readily make exceptions for students who can provide proof-a church bulletin from a funeral or a mechanic's receipt for car failure-but refers those without documentation to the class policies.

Although you may decide not to extend a deadline, you can do so in a polite way, says Conger. For example, you can express sympathy that a student's computer crashed and deleted their paper, but explain that the syllabus clearly indicates that late papers will be docked one letter grade.

One rule that Wickline stands firmly behind is that students who are upset about their grades, exams and other matters express their concerns after class or during her office hours. The policy allows her to cover more material in class and prevents power struggles in front of the other students.

"If you have one vocal student, often the mob mentality can set in," with one unhappy student turning into a dozen, she explains. "It has to be enough of an issue for them to take ownership and invest the time to see me."

ASK FOR BACKUP

If you're unsure how to deal with a student's request, don't be afraid to say you'll think it over and have an answer at the next class or by e-mail the next day, says Frey. Then, go consult with your supervising professor, a fellow grad student or mentor about your dilemma.

"In many cases, other graduate student teaching assistants have already been through it, and certainly other faculty," says Sufka.

The same goes for questions that students ask in class, he adds. If you don't know the answer to a question, it's perfectly fine to say, "That's a good question; let me get back to you on that." Then be sure to provide students with an answer the next time you meet.

STICK TO A FLEXIBLE PLAN

TAs can maximize their classroom time by knowing exactly what they plan to cover each day and padding that with time for questions.

Wickline, for example, starts each class by outlining what she'll cover and about how much time she'll spend on each topic. She then uses that outline to bring students who get off the subject back on task-saying things like, "Thank you for your enthusiasm, yet that might be better when we're talking about the next topic."

But the plan you create doesn't have to be an ultimatum; students may have good questions that are worth discussing for longer than you'd planned, or they may have trouble grasping material, says Wickline. In such situations, it's important to stop and focus on the challenging material instead of plowing through the rest of what you planned.

Ultimately, say TAs, taking command in the classroom doesn't have to be daunting. By drawing on your advanced knowledge of the field, setting clear goals and tapping others for advice, you can be comfortable in your leadership role.