Logistics of Teaching Large Courses: Part 7. managing and empowering your staff

One major difference between a small and a large course is that in a large course, you'll have a sizable TA staff. In a way, managing your TA staff is like teaching a separate small course with up to a dozen (or sometimes more!) students: you're teaching your staff how to share the responsibilities for leading hundreds of students through a learning experience. It's an important job!

Main principle: empowering

If you remember only one thing about managing staff, it should be to empower your TAs to act on your behalf to the greatest extent possible and only escalate issues up to you when something is beyond their authority. Empowering your staff not only makes them feel more motivated but also takes some of the workload off your shoulders. This isn't an original idea; it's just good management. But it's much easier said than done.

First term: Like I mentioned earlier about recruiting staff, in your first term you won't know much about logistics at your university. However, your TAs have likely taught here before, or if they're undergrads, they've even taken this or similar courses. Privately consult the experienced TAs if you have questions about how things work. Undergrad TAs can be especially helpful since they have a better sense of what undergraduate student culture is like. However, you need to strike a balance between acknowledging that you're new here but also showing that you're ultimately the one in charge of this course.

Handling forum questions: Your TAs should answer the majority of forum questions and only notify you when there's something that requires your attention. Many forums allow users to tag specific staff members, so TAs can tag you (or their fellow TAs) when they want someone else to look at a question. You should be scanning through the forums from time to time as well, but instead of jumping in to answer everything, tag the appropriate TA to delegate to them. You might be tempted to jump in, but resist this temptation so students can see that there's a norm for TAs to answer, not the professor.

Depending on your course format, you might have one head forum TA who is in charge of responding to most questions and delegating to other TAs as needed. You might also have a rotating format where on each day of the week, one TA is in charge of the forum. Or have some TAs in charge of certain topics; e.g., assign each TA to handle questions for a specific assignment. No matter which you choose, write it down in your private staff documents. I personally like having one head forum TA since they can really take ownership of this role and do it again in future terms as they gain more experience; if you go down this route, make sure this TA is really good at communicating online.

Getting it in writing: Some students will ask TAs to make special exceptions for them, sometimes adopting a strategy where they target the TA whom they perceive to be the least authoritative. If asking one TA doesn't work, they will go to another TA. Certain TAs will bear the brunt of this treatment, which isn't fair to them. To level things out, tell TAs to ask these students to make their requests in writing by posting a private forum message to the entire staff. That way, you and the rest of the staff can look over all requests and have a record of how each was handled. Not only is this fairer to your TAs, but it's fairer to the students in your course. Your TAs shouldn't make any verbal promises to students; always get requests in writing!

What if they make a mistake? Sometimes your TAs will post wrong answers to the forum or adopt an unfriendly tone. The best thing to do is to privately talk to them about it. Don't publicly shame them by posting a contradictory forum response. But since their incorrect posts can affect how an assignment is interpreted, you may need to get them to correct their own post. If a TA is consistently bad on the forum (either due to inaccuracies or tone), then take them off forum duties permanently and instead assign them to other behind-the-scenes work.

Fairness toward your staff and students

Looping back to our central theme of fairness, you should act in ways that are fair to your staff members, and in turn your staff (like you!) should act in ways that are fair to the students.

Respecting staff time: TAs are under contract to work only a certain number of hours per week. Usually undergrad TAs are supposed to work half (or fewer) maximum hours as grad TAs. It's really hard to track exact hours, so even well-intentioned professors can overwork their TAs. Let TAs know they can talk to you anytime if they ever have concerns about workload, and you'll adjust accordingly. This may mean rebalancing TA duties or even simplifying aspects of your course to require less TA effort.

Another dimension of respecting staff time is letting your TAs know that they shouldn't feel obligated to meet with students outside of preset times. Here's how I conveyed this expectation in my private staff documents: It's up to you how accommodating you are to meeting students outside of office hours or class times; I think meeting for a few minutes after class is fair since I told students that the staff would be available then. If you're busy at other times, then don't feel obligated.

Finally, if your course has an active forum with lots of student questions, it's really easy for your staff to overwork on forum duties without even realizing it. Students may also come to feel entitled to quick responses online. If this becomes a problem, consider limiting staff hours on the forum to a few hours each day (e.g., between 4pm and 7pm) to set proper student expectations.

Your staff represents you: Let your TAs know that they represent you (the instructor) when interacting with students, so they should uphold high standards just like you do. Here's what I wrote about this issue in my private staff documents:

You represent myself and the entire staff when you interact with students, so please strive to uphold a level of professionalism that you expect from your own professors. In particular, this means:

  • Resist the urge to complain, rant, vent, or gossip about students to one another, especially in any kind of public setting such as in your section rooms, the lecture hall, or even online (online interactions are more public than you expect!). You're going to inevitably face some difficult and challenging cases with some students; feel free to come talk to me privately about them, but don't gossip about students.
  • Some of you may be friends or dormmates with students in this class, or otherwise interact with students in social settings. Again be aware of issues regarding academic integrity and fairness in those cases, because it would be unfair for certain students to be treated differently (even in subtle ways) because they know members of the staff.

Communicating with your staff

Electronic communications: I'm old-fashioned so I just set up an email list to communicate with my staff. But you can use whatever tools you want. Some people love chat-based apps like Slack. I'm personally wary of apps that make it too “easy” to fire off quick messages since it can inadvertently encourage your staff to be online 24/7 always monitoring chats and notifications. I also recommend against going overboard on the latest shiny communications and project management technologies since that's just more complexity for everyone to juggle. Stay simple.

I sometimes email individual TAs to look into issues that don't require the full staff's attention. This avoids the bystander effect that can occur when I message the entire staff at once.

Just like with periodic announcements to students, copy common logistical emails you send to your staff to a notes file so that you can send them out again during similar times in future terms.

Weekly staff meetings: In-person meetings are good times to sync up with your TAs to go over pressing issues, but those can be hard to schedule given everyone's busy lives. I like to handle everything electronically if possible, so I usually end up calling a staff meeting once every two to three weeks. You might prefer once per week, though. Some TAs want to vent about bad student interactions during your meetings because it feels cathartic. But you need to forbid such venting, and let your staff know that you'll give them a chance to vent during the end-of-term meeting.

(hopefully!) rare events

If a TA (or yourself!) has an emergency come up, ask for another TA to help out. Make sure you show extreme gratitude to those who stepped up in this way, and find ways to lighten their workload later on. Consider nominating TAs who went above and beyond their call of duty for teaching-related awards.

Finally, I hope this doesn't happen, but if a TA is severely underperforming, first talk with them one-on-one in person to convey how seriously you're taking the issue. Reassigning them to other duties might be necessary, even though that may unfairly mean more work for the remaining TAs. Due to certain policies, it can be hard to fire a TA in the middle of the term, so the best you can do is to give them less critical duties to perform, which won't hurt the class too much if they do it badly. But in very extreme cases, you may need to fire a TA for serious offenses such as exhibiting discrimination or harassing students.

Next part: Logistics of Teaching Large Courses: Part 8. the g-word (grading)

(see all parts)

Appendix: private staff documents

I keep a set of logistical documents in a cloud folder (e.g., Google Drive) shared with my entire staff. This folder includes the grade spreadsheet and other private notes. The most important part of this folder is the staff info document. Mine contains:

  • Email addresses and phone numbers of staff members
  • Phone numbers of emergency contacts such as department administrators
  • Logistical information about how to get into classrooms that require keys or access codes (if they teach their own sections)
  • Main areas of responsibility for each TA
  • Protocol for answering forum questions; e.g., who should handle which types of questions? when/how should they delegate to others (e.g., by tagging TAs) or escalate to me?
  • Upholding professionalism when interacting with students
  • Guidelines for grading in a fair and timely manner
  • Protocols for handling common types of student requests

Keep this staff info document as short as possible. Don't turn it into a messy log of meeting notes, since if it gets too long then people won't read it. Keep it short! You can save meeting notes in separate documents and then extract the most important insights into this staff info document.

Example staff feedback guide (for my HCI course)

Guidelines for giving feedback and interacting with students:

  • Most importantly, don't do anything where students can perceive you as being unfair.
  • The course's Code of Conduct applies to staff too.
  • Keep feedback strictly about the project, and not about the students.
    • Good: "this part of your project isn't working or doesn't meet these rubric standards ..."
    • Bad: "Seems like you've been lazy and didn't work hard enough this week ..."
    • VERY bad: "Seems like [student's race, ethnicity, gender, etc.] isn't willing to work hard in this class ..."
  • Try not to let your personal tastes come into play when assessing how cool a project is; try to judge it in terms of whether it meets the rubric and whether there's a clear user population.
    • Good critique: "this project idea is too close to a topic on our banned list, try to add a feature that makes it more unique for your chosen user population"
    • Bad critique: "this idea is boring, I don't get why you're targeting [people of a certain demographic group], doesn't seem to be an important issue."
  • Even if you do your best to keep your feedback about the project, some students will still take it personally. If students ask you to explain why you took points off, you can do so if you feel comfortable (but it's better if those reasons are already written down so you can just point them to that) ... but they shouldn't be able to argue about getting individual points back on a point-by-point basis. Just direct them to the course regrade policy.
  • Don't talk or gossip about student teams or projects, especially in public when students can hear you.
  • Let students know that they can private-message me if any emergencies come up.