Skip to main content

A Letter to First-Semester GTAs: 6 Things to Know

November 09, 2022

Dear first-semester GTA,

Welcome to instructor life! I write this letter during my first semester of instructor-ing, jotting down some of the lessons I’ve learned in my short time teaching with the hope that you might get an early start in internalizing these lessons. Be brave, new instructor, and Godspeed!

1. If You Care, You Will Cry

Or bite your nails. Or feel anxious. Or do whatever it is you do when you feel overwhelmed.

The fact is, most GTAs go through what is professionally referred to as ‘Orientation,’ but is really the academic/intellectual equivalent of military bootcamp. A rigorous test of your ability to take in copious amounts of information at once, exhibit both coordination and flexibility at the same time, and come mano a mano with the reality that soon you will be responsible for educating twenty other human beings, these two weeks are emotionally overwhelming and draining. Catching a breath is difficult.

If you care about your performance as a future instructor, about trying to convince your instructors that you can do this, about the immediate loss of that sweet, summery free time, then you will cry. And it’s okay. It’s the nature of the overwhelming beast of becoming a GTA. You’re developing a whole new persona and incorporating new roles and tasks into your life, so of course it’s going to be overwhelming.

But all is not lost. You’re one of many GTAs. Fellow peers have gone on to achieve the seemingly impossible—being an instructor—and you can too. Know that orientation week is brutal but ultimately beneficial; listen to the rest of my advice; and pack some extra de-puffing tissues.

2. Share & Care

Very quickly, you will discover the process that is lesson planning. At times, when creativity is sparking and you’re wearing your lucky sweatshirt, lesson planning can be a joy. Sometimes, though, lesson planning is a headache. When this happens, don’t try to reinvent the wheel.

Ask your instructor-peers. Ask your mentors. Ask the Internet. There are dozens of resources out there—including other people in your department—that have lesson plans or models that they probably will be willing to share. In my experience, instructional intellectual material swaps hands often; we all realize that this lesson planning thing is hard, so instructors help instructors help instructors… So, ask other instructors for help and run with their materials (but! make sure you’re still giving credit where credit is due).

Developing a support network is great for many reasons, not just the sharing of lesson plan ideas. For instance: Vent to your support network. Want to commiserate over the woes of grading? Support network. Need someone who can give you constructive feedback on your instructor-ing? Support network!

It’s brutal out there. Get a support network to lean on while you walk through first-semester instructor life.

3. The New Persona Fiasco 

Becoming an instructor while you are still taking your own classes is curious for many reasons. For one, you develop a level of respect for your own instructors that’s a million times higher than what it was before. Standing alone in front of a sea of faces? Hard. Trying to start and sustain a classroom discussion? Hard. Getting grades released in a reasonable amount of time? Hard.

For two, you have less time to be a student. I’m not saying you’re going to start tackling assigned readings right before they’re due, but you might start tackling assigned readings right before they’re due.

For three, transitioning (sometimes pretty rapidly and frequently) between student mode and instructor mode is more mind-boggling than you might think. You’ll have to watch yourself: instructor-ly questions will slip out when you’re supposed to be in student-mode, participating in the discussion rather than leading it. You’ll have to take care with how you sign your emails, toggling between Best, Grace and Best, Ms. H.

Navigating this multiple persona fiasco is something I did not realize I would have to do when becoming an instructor, but it is something that is very real (and unique) to being a GTA. My suggestion is: try to enjoy both roles; student and instructor.

4. Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

To your students, you sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher. Mwah-wah-mwah-wah-mwah-wah. Muffled. Nonsensical. Saying nothing at all.

You will have to repeat instructions/requirements/due dates three, five, seven times before your students even realize that you’re saying something that might be important. And then two more times after that for them to actually understand what you’re saying.

Practicing patience is a teaching virtue, and so is practicing repetition.

5. That Eighteen-Year-Old in the Corner? Yeah, He Probably Isn’t Laughing at You.

There are three scenarios here. One, a likely scenario, eighteen-year-old is laughing at something his fellow eighteen-year-old bro said, in which case maybe you’re doing a good job at creating class community. Take this one as a win (or at least a draw) and move on.

Two, equally as likely, eighteen-year-old is laughing at a TikTok on his phone. We might have to have a conversation about appropriate technology-usage in the classroom, but this shouldn’t be permanently damaging to the classroom environment or to your psyche.

Three, he IS laughing at you (the least desirable outcome, at least to me). But before emotions get involved, think this scenario through. What an eighteen-year-old thinks of you should have little impact on your life. (Unless it’s super Out Of Line and disruptive. Then, contact your supervisor.) Also: laughter is often a defense mechanism. Maybe he’s not doing as well as he would like in the class and doesn’t know how to deal with it other than immature laughter. Made-up student is, after all, only eighteen-years-old.

So, stand tall. Breathe deeply. Move on with the class and with your life. After all, he probably isn’t laughing at you anyway.

6. Chill Out!

You’re going to mess up, but it’s going to be okay. Your students can’t see What’s Behind the Instructor Curtain if you don’t let them or small dogs in.

Practice self-kindness. Rome wasn’t built in a day; Bob Ross didn’t start out a great painter; and instructors aren’t robots (as much as conspiracies would like to say otherwise). They’re human, just like you.


headshot photograph of the author, Grace, smiling at the cameraGrace Humphreys is a second-year MA student at Purdue University. Her area of study is the Environmental Humanities and her recent research interests include literary representations of desert spaces and invertebrates. In the future, Grace would love to teach an environmentally focused literature course and is constantly revising this imaginary course’s syllabus in her head.