Struggling with Authority as a Young TA

By Manuel Arjonilla-Rodríguez

Manuel Arjonilla-Rodriguez is a Spanish Instructor and second year master’s student in the Language, Literature, and Cultures department at UConn majoring in Hispanic Literature, Culture, and the Spanish Language. Before coming to the United States, Manuel lived, worked and studied in France, Germany, and Spain (his home country) and completed a BA in French Studies and a BA in English Studies. His interest include traveling, cross-cultural experiences, and translation of poetry.

nerdy professor

When I arrived at UConn to work as a language instructor, I had just graduated from my home university less than a month before. I remember being shocked when I heard what my teaching responsibilities would be: I was going to be the only instructor of two sections of Intermediate Spanish. I alone was responsible for the lectures, the quizzes, the projects, the grading, and all in all, for the success or the failure of the class.

I was nervous yet excited–in Spain I would have never been given the opportunity to stand alone in front of a class without a master’s and extensive training, so I was both scared for my lack of experience and thrilled for all the teaching experience I would gain. I thought it would put me ahead of the game in the increasingly competitive market, so I dived in, determined to succeed and be the best teacher I could be, despite not having any previous experience.

When I first entered the room to meet my class (a little too close to the starting time, I must admit), I remember the silent, general surprise when I stood behind the professor’s desk instead of sitting with the rest of the students, and I couldn’t help but smirk a little. I was just as surprised to see that most of them looked my age, no different from the classmates I had been sharing my undergrad classes with less than a month before. I was relieved, thinking that getting along with them and handling a class of young adults would be easy. But boy, was I wrong…

At first, I was not fully aware of what this change of my role from student to teacher would entail: I didn’t feel any different from them, so trying to act like an authority figure felt phony, unnatural, and unnecessary to me. I simply behaved like myself, thinking that a young, cool, friendly teacher approach would work.

I am an innocent, gullible, and empathetic person, so before long I found myself being too permissive and understanding, accepting late assignments and unexcused absences. I had not considered the risks and limits of trying to act and look like one of them. What I thought would be a good opportunity and a positive experience turned out to get slightly out of control with one of my two sections. Some of my students got so comfortable and friendly with me and the rest of their classmate that it was sometimes difficult to maintain or recover my authority when I needed to.

I shared my concerns with other TAs in my department and it seemed like age did have an impact on our experiences in the classroom. Older TAs were perceived as more distant and less relatable figures while younger TAs were relatable but not always taken seriously. Some of my older students even started acting paternalistically to me.

How to deal with these challenges to your authority when you’re young, inexperienced, and not yet used to having authority? After some semesters of trial and error, these are the strategies I have learned for new, young TAs:

  • Set expectations upfront: As soon as the semester starts, state a clear policy, make it clear in class, and stick to it. How will you handle late assignments or missed homework? Will you allow computers or phones in your class? Decide what kind of behavior you expect to see in your class and stick to those rules.  This strategy will allow you to refer back to the policy and the syllabus if any problems arise rather than making it a personal, subjective issue.
  • Decide on your “teaching persona”: When you think of your “teacher self” as a persona or as a mask you can put on and off, it becomes easier to be bolder than you would normally be. You do not necessarily have to be just like your social self when you are teaching. For example, after my rocky start the first semester, I set very clear boundaries, and I pictured myself as being stricter than I normally am. When I was “in character” it was easier to use authority. Another persona I have used is “the clown” or “thepicture of a mime mime”: I pictured myself as a mime, exaggerating all my movements and signs, acting ridiculous to help my students learn new concepts through body language. If I had been my normal self, I would have felt self-conscious, but thinking of the class as a performance helped me get rid of my sense of shame. This also helped many students to lose their own sense of shame in class which increased participation during role-playing activities. In short, experiment with different personas until you find one that works and you feel comfortable with. This, of course, asks you to pay close attention to the way you move, speak, dress and react in your class.
  • Start stricter then ease up: If you are unsure about what kind of persona would be effective, I would advise to start with some level of strictness. You can always loosen up later as you find your own teaching persona. You want your students to take you seriously during your first classes and identify you as the person in charge of that class, not just as a fun friend. Once respect is lost, it never comes back.
  • Interrupt disruptive behavior early: If a student is crossing any of your red lines, do not ignore this and hope it will fade away– it never will. If students see you’re hesitating, not reacting, and not calling out mildly disruptive behavior, they will perceive you as weak and keep on testing and pushing your boundaries. If you don’t act soon it will get harder and harder to call it out later on, and before you notice, you may feel like you’ve lost the control in your class.

It is now my third semester teaching, and although I still face challenges, I think I have developed some strategies to keep my authority. This guide collects what I wish somebody had told me before I started teaching, rather than having to learn it the hard way through trial and error. Although, sometimes that’s the best way one can learn.