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Mentoring Scenarios

What would you do? Imagine yourself in the following three scenarios.

Scenario I: “My TA has some difficulty with the English language.”

Mentor: You met with and observed your mentee’s teaching a week ago.  You noticed that the TA had some difficulty with the use of the English language – grammar was sometimes incorrect, his/her accent was difficult to understand, and explanations were not always clear.

Mentee: You have just arrived in the US to start grad school and have been TA’ing for about 3 weeks.  Things seem to be going well, except you are not quite sure how much material to plan for during section.  You are really concerned about how to anticipate any questions that will come up and how long activities will last.

What’s going on here?

  • International TAs may be unfamiliar with both the language and the teaching culture of the US.
  • They often attempt to avoid the unknown. Perhaps they plan everything so there’ll be no room for student questions, or they prepare copious notes in case they have difficulty speaking.

What’s there to do about it?

  • Practice is often one of the best ways to overcome nervousness and improve language skills. Microteaching sections or private practice with you might also help them better anticipate timing.
  •  The Hume Center for Writing and Speaking may be able to provide more direct resources for them, such as an oral communications tutor or specialized courses for non-native English speakers.

Scenario II: “Students couldn’t get a word in edgewise.”

Mentor: You just supervised a few TAs recently and noticed that the students in one section seemed scared to ask anything.  You know it is the TA’s first year teaching, and they seem to be putting in a lot of effort to prepare.

Mentee: This is your first year TA’ing, and section seems to be going pretty well.  You spend lots of time to prepare plenty of material for section in case you get through things too quickly. Despite being so prepared, you’re nervous that the students will ask something you haven’t anticipated.

What’s going on here?

  •     Find out the TA's goals for teaching. Where are they in that process? They may be still a very novice instructor, and leading discussion may be a second goal after mastering preparation and nervousness.
  •     The TA could be spending way too much time preparing for material. Reassure the TA that although it is great to be well prepared for section, it’s ok to not know everything.

What’s there to do about it?

  •     Brainstorm strategies for handling tough student questions.
  •     Brainstorm strategies for encouraging student questions and discussion. Model ways that you have been successful eliciting student participation.
  •     Have your mentee observe a fellow TA’s section and discuss what teaching strategies worked in that classroom.  Discuss how these strategies might be used in their own classroom.

Scenario III: “My TA just doesn’t see it.”

Reconsider Scenario II. How would things change if the TA doesn’t understand that there’s a lack of participation, even when you nudge the issue a couple times?

What’s there to do about it?

  • Focus on your observations, not your opinions. What examples from section can you provide?
  • Details matter. For example, instead of “Not many people responded,” say, “Four people responded to questions in this section.  The man in the green sweater in the front row responded to half of all the questions.”
  • Find out what’s going on. Without being confrontational, you might casually mention, “Some TAs unintentionally shut down questions because they’re nervous about being stumped.”
  • Offer continued support.  Set up another visit for next week.
  • Suggest that the TA be video-recorded or have a mid-quarter evaluation done. Often the TA will then notice that participation is lacking.