Many TAs feel far removed from undergraduate culture, distant from that way of living and thinking, even though they themselves were undergraduates not so long ago. The TA who can remember this experience, however, and empathize with the trials and stresses of undergraduate life may be able, in the end, to reach more students than those who view them from afar.
Although the life of an undergraduate may seem idyllic when looked at through the eyes of the overburdened graduate student, it is not quite as simple as memory makes it. Most undergraduates have a full schedule of classes, carrying at least twelve credits (often, sixteen or more). In addition to this, a majority of undergraduates must work at part-time or even full-time jobs to subsidize their education. For many students, a job is a necessity: without it, they would be forced to leave school. Furthermore, many of these students are living away from home for the first time in their lives––an emotionally and socially demanding period. Clearly, students who are overwhelmed by work and social life will have difficulties investing the needed time to complete their coursework.
Once TAs recognize the fact that the life of the undergraduate is not always an easy one, they are in a position to help their students: to consider ways to translate this knowledge into action, to adopt teaching strategies that acknowledge and alleviate the problems that come along with being an undergraduate. Perhaps the most effective first step TAs can take is to stop thinking about their students as an amorphous mass–the undergraduates–and to attempt to see them as individuals. Do not make generalizations about your students (i.e., undergraduates are lazy, silly, shallow, unmotivated, etc.). Most students are sincerely involved with their education and willing to work hard to succeed.
Be understanding when students come to you with problems or with excuses for late or unsatisfactory work: they honestly do have tight schedules and may be under a lot of pressure. Help them if you can; don’t put another obstacle in their way. This does not mean that you should fall for every line they give you, but do not be so skeptical that you do not accept any excuses. Dealing with students in a fair and honest manner is the best policy. Try to help them find ways to meet their commitments to your class without losing control of other equally important parts of their lives.