Teaching Assistants Guide

Table of Contents

  1. Being a Teaching Assistant at Dal
  2. Know Your Rights: Read the Collective Agreement
  3. Know Your Responsibilities: Talk To Your Supervisor
  4. What You Should and Should Not Do
  5. Be Active, Be Union!
  6. Tips For Teaching Assistants
  7. Know How to Get Help
  8. Additional Resources For TAs
  9. Did You Find This Helpful?

Being a Teaching Assistant at Dal

As a teaching assistant, you make an essential contribution to the high quality of education at Dalhousie University. TAs acquire valuable teaching experience, develop confidence in public speaking, and learn to facilitate discussion. As a TA, you use the skills and knowledge acquired in your own education to help others learn. Being a TA is usually enjoyable and rewarding; however, it involves a number of responsibilities and can be a real challenge.

This pamphlet provides you with information on how to be a great TA. More resources are listed at the end, and to get in contact with CUPE 3912, find us at:

Room 3618, Killam Library
Tel: 494-8872, Fax: 494-6344,
Email: office.cupe3912@gmail.com
Web: www.3912.cupe.ca
Facebook: CUPE Local 3912
Twitter: @CUPE3912

Know Your Rights: Read the Collective Agreement

TAs at Dal are automatically part of CUPE 3912’s bargaining unit and are therefore entitled to a number of rights and services as outlined in the collective agreement, including:

  • A safe, harassment-free, non-discriminatory workplace.
  • Union representation and grievance handling, in the event of a dispute.
  • A priority system for TA positions.
  • A maximum workweek of 14 hours and an average workweek of ten hours.
  • The right to overtime pay for agreed-upon additional hours.
  • The space, facilities, services, and equipment necessary to do your job.

Being a TA is part of the academic experience for most graduate students. Some may even think it is part of our education. But that is not the case. As a TA/marker or demonstrator you are paid by the hour. Your contract specifies the number of hours for which you are paid, the time period for which you are paid, and the person for whom you work (your supervisor).

Know Your Responsibilities: Talk To Your Supervisor

As a TA you may find yourself doing any of a number of tasks depending on your assignment. At the beginning of every semester, each TA must discuss with their supervisor what their responsibilities will be and how much time to devote to each task. Your responsibilities should not, on average, take more than ten hours a week. Some periods are busier than others (for example, exam time), but you should never agree to work more than fourteen hours in a week unless you are offered overtime pay and you honestly believe you can manage the extra hours. Use the “Workload Agreement Form” at the back of the Collective Agreement to make this discussion official and “on paper;” it protects you from being overworked. That form is one of the greatest achievements of our negotiations.

Check in with your supervisor regularly to ensure that things are going according to your plan, or to adjust the Workload Agreement Form if they are not. Your relationship with your supervisor is an important one; good relations make for a better workplace for you and your students. Some TAs work closely with supervising faculty to design and carry out a collaborative lesson plan. Some are simply told about their basic responsibilities and tasks and left to do them relatively independently. You are entitled to guidance and feedback and respect for the valuable assistance you provide.

Remember: you are NOT your supervisor’s research assistant. If you have doubts about what tasks you should agree to do, talk to a union representative.

Depending on whether you work as a TA in Engineering, Sciences, Social Sciences or Humanities, your TA job description will vary. For example, TAs in the Sciences often run labs and grade lab assignments. TAs in the Social Sciences and Humanities often assist professors who are teaching introductory classes. These classes usually have a writing requirement; as a result, TAs will have lots of papers to grade. Find out how detailed your supervising professor wants your comments to be; marking essays can take a huge amount of time!

In some classes, evaluation is conducted through easy-to-mark (or electronically-marked) multiple choice tests. In such cases, the bulk of your responsibilities may rest with leading tutorials. Discuss with your supervisor how s/he expects these to be run; are they mostly for review of class material? Review of the readings? Further applications of models learned in class?

TAs also offer general support to students. They give advice and act as role models for undergraduates. Teaching assistants are experienced students, expected and usually pleased to pass on what they have learned in an academic setting to their students. Remind your supervisor that this role has “hidden hours”.

What You Should and Should Not Do

What you should you do:

1: Be Informed!

First, find out if you are paid as TA or Marker/Demonstrator . Then, know what your duties are and how much time is allotted to each duty. You should know the expectations of your supervisor.

2 : Communicate!

Contact your supervisor immediately if you find that one task takes substantially longer than anticipated. You should also express concerns when they arise! You might suggest an acceptable solution (i.e. giving less feedback, marking fewer papers). Always be polite, but firm.

3 : Keep a Record!

Be sure you write down how long you work on each task , and keep a copy of any communication with your supervisor. If you are working too many hours, the first step is to talk to your supervisor. In many cases this will resolve the problem. If she/he is not willing to adjust your workload, talk with the department head about your problem (if you are shy, this ‘talking’ can be done by email). If that does not solve the problem contact a Union representative.

We will help you! But we need the facts; that’s why record keeping is important. The Union has informal and formal ways to deal with your problem, we will explain the process to you and guide you through it.

What you should NOT do:

Don’t stop performing your duties unless you have already used up all the hours you are being paid for. However, if you have used up those hours, you are not obligated to pursue work that is not paid overtime.

You should not defer addressing the issue nor accept an increase in workload because you fear consequences; nor should you accept an increase in workload because it provides a valuable teaching experience.

You may have the extra time and like the work, so in this case it should be okay to be generous, right? Not really. Keep in mind that you are being paid by the hour for a limited amount of hours. Your willingness to work longer could be used as a precedent by the employer to coerce others into working longer hours. It may also prevent your department from hiring an adequate number of TAs.

Our collective agreement is indeed ‘collective,’ which requires you to think about others before you offer extra work. At the very least, make it clear to your supervisor that you make a personal decision which should not be used as precedence for other TA’s. Also, keep in mind that your supervisor might profit more in the long term from being able to have an extra TA for the work that needs to be done.

Supervisors are seldom the ones who make hiring decisions; TAs are usually allocated to their course by administration. If he/she can document that one TA cannot do the work that is necessary to provide a quality education for students he/she is in a better position to ask for more TAs in the future.

Be Active, Be Union!

Your union, CUPE Local 3912, needs you! With your involvement, 3912 can be most responsive, reflective, and useful for its members. You can become involved by:

  • volunteering to act as a “steward” for the TAs in your department;
  • joining a committee;
  • attending meetings;
  • participating in union-organized events;
  • suggesting activities or events for union executive committee members or staff to host;
  • contributing to the local’s newsletter;
  • representing the local at conferences;
  • attending union ‘educationals’ and seminars;
  • helping publicize events.

To get involved, call 494-8872 or Email: office.cupe3912@gmail.com

Tips For Teaching Assistants


You may need to prepare for tutorials or even to grade assignments by doing the basic readings or attending lectures, to identify the key points that you and/or the professor want students to extract. Organize the key points and come up with different ways of explaining them and showing examples.

Lesson Plan

Having a lesson plan will probably make you feel more confident and on top of things when you have to speak in front of the class or lead a discussion. Depending on the lesson, you may want to outline the key points you wish to communicate and have a list of questions and provocative statements to stimulate discussion. Students learn in different ways; it is useful to think of a variety of different strategies to help students understand the material at hand. It is often helpful to vary the type of activity in a class, to keep student attention and test comprehension.


Audio-visual materials can help students understand and retain information. The audio-visual department at Dal can provide you with anything you need to show a range of audio-visual materials. The best advice regarding audio-visual is to be prepared: make sure the equipment works and you know how to use it.

Student Relations

It is important to be sensitive to your students. They benefit from encouragement, praise, and constructive criticism. Just as you will have days when you are tired, stressed, or unhappy, so will your students. They learn in different ways and at different speeds; some of them will be at university for the first time; some may be very far from home. Be honest and be understanding, but do not over-extend yourself. This is a job.


The most important part of marking is time management. How many assignments, essays or tests do you have to mark? How long does your supervisor expect you to spend marking each? How detailed does s/he expect your comments to be? Is it possible to be that detailed in the given amount of time?

Another important part of marking is staying on the lookout for plagiarism. If you suspect a student of plagiarism, discuss it with your supervisor.

Know How to Get Help

Because TAs usually receive minimal, if any training, there is a steep learning curve associated with the job. If you feel unsteady about a task or if you feel uncomfortable about your working conditions or a co-worker, student, or supervisor’s behaviour, there are people who can help you sort through it. In addition to those resources listed below, you can always contact CUPE 3912 TA representatives.

President: president.cupe3912@gmail.com

Vice President – TAs at Studley Campus: vp.dal.ta.studley.cupe3912@gmail.com

Vice President – TAs at Sexton Campus: vp.dal.ta.sexton.cupe3912@gmail.com

Additional Resources For TAs

Academic Advising
Student Services Office, Room G28,
Main Level, Killam Library

Advocacy Service
Room 310, Student Union Building

Black Student Advising
Room 418, Student Union Building

Campus Copy
Basement Level, Student Union Building

Career and Leadership Development Centre
Room 446, Student Union Building

Career Counselling and The Frank G. Lawson Career Information Centre
Room 409, Student Union Building

Counselling and Psychological Services
Room 408, Student Union Building

Dalhousie Association of Graduate Students (DAGS)
1252 LeMarchant Street

Grad House
1252 LeMarchant Street

Health Clinic
6230 Coburg Road

Health Plan
Basement Level, Student Union Building

Office of Human Rights, Equity & Harassment Prevention
Room 2, basement level, Henry Hicks Building

International Centre
Studley: 1321 Edward Street, 2nd Floor
Sexton: 1160 Barrington Street, Building B

Native Post Secondary Education Counselling Unit
6286 South Street, 2nd Floor

Payroll and Information Services
Room 21, Basement, Henry Hicks Building

South House Gender and Sexuality Resource Centre
Main Level, 6286 South Street

Writing Centre
Learning Commons, Killam Library

Did You Find This Helpful?

Please direct comments to 902-494-8872 or office.cupe3912@gmail.com. All suggestions are welcome.

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