Monday, July 24, 2006

Catch 'Em Doing Something Right

If your program uses teaching assistants, here's an effective technique to help them get off to a good start and build morale. Grab a small notepad and pen, and step quietly into each TA's workshop or study group.  Just watch from the back for a few minutes until you see the TA do something that is effective.  It needs to be something specific and concrete.

Then step back out and, right there in the hallway, take fifteen seconds to jot a note telling the TA what you saw and why you thought it was effective.  Use a "nice job!" tone in the note.  It needn't be more than a sentence or two.

Then drop the note into the TA's mailbox.  Little bits of encouragement like that can make a world of difference for the TA's confidence, and it gives you an excuse to say something positive with no qualifiers.

When I was a high school administrator and shared responsibility for supervising teachers, we used to always say, "Let's go out of our way to 'catch 'em doing something right.' "  For the first three weeks of the school year, we would each visit the classroom of every teacher a couple of times, each time staying until we had something concrete to compliment.  Each visit took no more than five or ten minutes, including the time to jot a note and drop it in the teacher's mailbox.

It was tremendously helpful in building trust.  The teachers began to see us as coaches instead of supervisors and knew we were not simply looking for instructional problems or for areas in which they should improve.  They began to look forward to our visits throughout the year and welcomed constructive criticism as the year progressed.  I think it went a long way toward helping us administrators keep healthy perspectives as well.

Such an approach should transfer nicely to a program that incorporates teaching assistants.  Most teaching assistants have little experience leading workshops and study groups, and their confidence is naturally a little shaky early on.  As novices, they will have plenty of room for improvement; but they will appreciate having someone who is out, first of all, to "catch 'em doing something right." (dbw)

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