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Teaching assistants struggle to find work-life balance during remote instruction

Sophia Young | Contributing Photo Editor
Teaching assistants say the pandemic has led to a reimagining of their role from a teaching one to an administrative one, adding that boundaries between personal life and professional have broken down.

Updated: Oct. 7, 2020 at 5:27 p.m.

Teaching assistants are experimenting with platforms like WebEx and Blackboard Collaborate to keep their students engaged with lessons during the remote semester.

Half a dozen teaching assistants who have worked as instructors in past semesters said they have “completely” readjusted their approach to teaching to help students learn and stay engaged while conducting sessions entirely virtual. TAs said they miss having personal interactions with their students and are struggling to maintain a healthy “work-life balance” because of the extra assistance their students need to navigate their classes virtually.

Koren Bedeau, the senior associate provost for special projects, said the Graduate TA Orientation Program was updated to inform and support new instructors during the virtual learning period. She said GTAP orientation, typically required for all first-time GTAs, was extended for all current GTAs as a resource to consult for questions about responsibilities and educational technology through the virtual learning period.

“Held over the summer, the orientation included informational videos and guides for online teaching, including an overview of virtual tools and online platforms utilized at GW,” Bedeau said in an email.

She said because TAs’ responsibilities vary “significantly” from department to department, much of the guidance provided for students is at the department level. She said some departments in schools like the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and School of Engineering and Applied Science provide group training or individual mentoring for TAs.

“CCAS and SEAS faculty also hold regular meetings with GTAs this fall to keep track of progress and identify any online challenges in attempt to quickly rectify them,” Bedeau said.

Robin Delaloye, the associate dean of student success and communications, said the Instructional Technology Lab offered more than 60 workshops for TAs and instructors on navigating Blackboard this summer. He said the office will continue to offer workshops and personalized support for TAs this semester.

“Some taught the basics of Blackboard, but other workshops offered focused information on various aspects of Blackboard like assignments, administering a test, using groups, grade center, discussion boards, etc.” Delaloye said in an email.

Second-year graduate student Marianna Fotakos, a TA for Sociocultural Anthropology, said she has had difficulty separating her TA responsibilities from her personal life and struggles to set boundaries with students who contact her outside of office hours.

She said she finds herself tuned into her computer answering students’ emails nearly “every hour,” adding that her in-person teaching was more engaging and she could dedicate more time to answering questions.

“We’re all in this together,” Fotakos said. “So I think that there’s a lot of understanding on everyone’s part with each other, trying to understand and be compassionate, because I think everyone’s struggling with it. It’s not just students – it’s everyone. It’s a big learning curve.”

Fotakos said she separates her students into breakout groups on WebEx during discussion sections and encourages them to communicate with each other and form study circles. She said other TAs in the anthropology department have implemented similar strategies to ease the teachers’ workload outside of teaching hours.

“We want to be there, we want to support you, we want to answer your questions, but we also have to take a step back and realize that we don’t have to be available all the time,” she said.

Senior Abigail Sepich, a TA for Introduction to International Business, said her role as a TA has become more “administrative” because her discussion section is strictly for review of the material taught in class. She said when she was a TA last semester, she was actively involved in lectures by taking attendance, recording students’ participation and answering questions.

Now that her section is not mandatory to attend, Sepich said her tasks are focused on setting up online sessions and helping students with technical issues.

Sepich said she doesn’t mind her new role but said she is not a “tech expert” and feels less qualified to help students with technical issues than the course material itself. She said administrators offered courses for TAs on navigating Blackboard Collaborate Ultra throughout the summer, but it covered the platform’s basics, which she had already learned.

“Before I would say it was a lot more of a teaching role,” Sepich said. “Now, it’s a lot more like being an administrative assistant.”

Second-year graduate student Christiaan Bedrij-Arpa, a TA for Introduction to International Politics, said students attending his discussions ask more “technical” questions relating to terms mentioned in the textbook or in the professor’s pre-recorded lectures since they are unable to ask questions in class. He said he’s been working closely with the course’s professor to ensure the section runs smoothly and every student is following the course.

He said international students in his class watch his recorded discussion section and then email a written response to an assigned question about a discussion topic.

“Those are the students that I’ve had primarily email me with other questions, and I’ll just get back to them with detailed email responses if they have any questions or offer to meet with them, but so far, it’s been going smoothly,” Bedrij-Arpa said.

He said the course’s professor is requiring students to participate in each discussion section to receive full participation credit so students are engaged in his section. He said the policy incentivizes students to ask questions, but students may be participating more because they can’t talk to the professor directly.

“Now, somebody always has a question – we run past the end of class,” Bedrij-Arpa said. “Everybody is always inquisitive about things, but it’s different topics. It’s more basic questions.”

Third-year graduate student Michael Kaplan, a TA for Foundations of Anthropological Thought, said he wishes there was better communication between administrators and TAs about the University’s Zoom licensing restrictions and whether TAs have access to their own premium account. He said he doesn’t know if TAs have the same access to Zoom as professors so he has been using Blackboard Collaborate to hold his discussion sessions.

Kaplan said Collaborate only allows him to see a few students’ faces, which makes it harder to gauge if students are engaged and paying attention. He said he is still “unfamiliar” with many of the students in his discussion sections because he is unable to see their faces.

“It’s hard to feel like you’re speaking into a void when you can’t see anyone,” Kaplan said.

Editor’s Note:
This post has been updated to include a comment from Koren Bedeau and Robin Delaloye.

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