Organization And Preparation

1. Lab Meetings

In most cases, especially for larger courses, there will be a lab director who holds weekly lab meetings. Each director will have their own methods for the ways in which they manage the course, but the purpose of the lab meeting (from the lab director's point of view) is to make sure that the TAs know what is expected for a particular lab. That being said, here's a list of things to think about as you go into the lab meeting:

1) Don’t assume you’ll get everything you need just by attending the lab meeting. The lab manager, or TA leading the meeting, usually does not have any information about your previous experience or background knowledge. Whether you were part of the research group that discovered the concept being taught, of you have never actually taken this course yourself will not be the concern of the meeting leader. While this can sometimes act in your favor, it usually means that you won't have all your questions answered if you simply just show up.

2) Be proactive about your preparation. Make sure you know how to do the lab and you are aware of everything you need. Taking the initiative to stay after lab meeting and have someone go through the actual lab with you could save you hours of frustration later on if you are not sure how to instruct your students.

3) Don't waste the time of other TAs. Use your common sense with this one. While it's important to have all of your questions answered so that you can run your lab section effectively, make sure to minimize the time you take up during lab meeting to ask specific questions. If your questions can be answered quickly, go for it. Chances are that someone else has the same question. But if you simply want help learning to operate a piece of equipment that everyone is familiar with, wait until the lab meeting has ended and ask someone if they wouldn't mind spending a few minutes with you. Also, if you know you're going to need extra help figuring out the lab, email the lab director or TA in charge for the week and ask them (in advance) if they wouldn't mind spending a few minutes with you after lab meeting.

4) Keep phone numbers handy. I wish someone would have told me this the first time I TAed. At the very first lab meeting, write down (or enter into your cell phone) the lab manager's number and the professor's number. As soon as you get to know the other TAs, get their phone numbers as well, if they will give them to you. You just never know when an emergency will creep up (traffic, accidents, explosions in your own lab), and hopefully you'll never have a big one, but if you already have those numbers close to you it will be a lot easier to appear responsible by notifying someone about your situation.

2. Communication with other TAs

As best as you can, make friends with the other TAs as soon as possible. This usually is not hard at all and simply requires you to be polite and pull your weight in TA duties. You will find that a lot of small issues can be resolved among TA's if you have a good working relationship. For example, if you need to leave town for a week, it will be a lot easier for the lab director to grant you permission if you have found a substitute TA that is willing to switch with you.

On a weekly basis talk to other TA’s about the lab so that you know what is or is not likely to work. It will save you a couple of headaches if you are already aware of what might go wrong. And chances are, if you have some great students, they are doing the same thing by talking to their classmates, and they will want you to have some good answers as to why the lab is not showing them what they anticipated.

3. Lab equipment

Make sure all lab equipment is functioning. If something breaks down during your lab, make sure to put a note on it and tell the lab manager. Besides the obvious stuff that should be listed in your lab manual, here's a checklist of important items that often get overlooked:

  • chalk/dry erase markers - there's nothing as bad as being on a time budget and finding that all the markers are nearly out of ink
  • eraser - otherwise you end up using your hands and it's messy
  • Stapler (with staples inside)
  • band-aids - there should be a first aid kit in the lab
  • A/V equipment - make sure that you tell the lab director immediately if anything about the A/V system doesn't seem to be functioning correctly.

You probably won't have the time to check these items before every single class, so just make sure you know how to replace them quickly if you need to.

4. Do your own homework

Of course, getting the most out of lab meetings and being well prepared means that, just like your students, you should read the lab manual well in advance. This really does not mean the night before, or in the bus on the way to school. Sure you can do that and be a decent TA, and sometimes (due to your own classes, your demanding advisor, or the fact that you just need to have a life outside of school) you'll have to. But if you really want to be an exceptional TA, read over the lab at least a week in prior to the lab meeting. This gives you time to figure out what you don't know and what you should ask for assistance with. Do internet/textbook research before the meeting so that you understand the concepts associated with the lab.

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