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  • Writer's pictureEverest Schipper

The T.A. Experience – Being an Effective Leader and the “Digital TA Toolbox” (Andrew Peng ‘26)

Interpersonal conflicts inevitably arise when you’re stuck seeing the same 300 people 24/7, 7 days a week, for half a year. Freshmen often find themselves swept off their feet when they first arrive at Cate and are introduced to its full West Coast boarding school entirety. For the average Cate student, learning to thrive at Cate requires dealing with not only the academic rigor but also everything else that comes with being at a residential school. As the senior in charge, the Teaching Assistant’s (TA) role is to dispense valuable knowledge and provide a helping hand in guiding students. 


One of the first things handed to fledging TAs is the “Digital TA Toolbox.” A digital document that perfectly balances what a good guide should be: vague when describing the desired goals yet specific on the steps to get there. It is a treasure trove of useful tools: a list of core principles such as self-discipline, kindness, persistence, responsibility, and awareness; sixty or so conversation starters; forty reflection prompts for students and thirteen critical evaluators of “good discussions” for the TAs; and seventy-four unique and fun games for the semmies. The sixteen-page manual has essentially everything you could ever think of, say, or even do, and the answers to any question you could ever conjure up during your tenure as a TA; the only question you’ll ever have is whether you’re thinking for yourself at all. But a future TA won’t just be an unthinking robot tasked with doing the bidding of the “Digital TA Toolbox”...right? And if everyone says that being a TA is a significant, yet no small task, how come the “Digital TA Toolbox” outlines it all?


Last week, two pairs of TAs were interviewed: Kyle Park ‘24 and Anna Morse ‘24, who are TAs for their D block semmies, and Oliver Lee ‘24 and Ingrid Lu ‘24, who are TAs for their C block semmies. Here’s what they had to say:


The “Digital TA Toolbox” isn’t the end-all-be-all. It’s just a supplement for your success; don’t let it limit you.


When the topic of the “Digital TA Toolbox” was brought up with Ingrid, she just looked at me quizically and confessed, “I didn’t even know that was a thing.” Adding that she does “remember being handed a big packet at the beginning of the year… and me and Oliver used it to plan our first five lessons. But since then, we’ve just done our own thing…” So clearly, the Toolbox isn’t indispensable.


When Kyle and Anna were asked whether they ever felt lesson structures of seminar restricted what they could do as TAs, Anna responded, “Not necessarily, no… we were always able to contribute when we wanted to,” with Kyle sharing a similar sentiment. Kyle also reflected on the importance of “working with the freedom we [TAs] have” and how that can often be enough. He elaborated that doing that effectively in check-ins and activities requires "understanding the students well.”


Being a TA doesn’t just stop once you leave the four walls of Squash Court East. 


When asked about the significance of the TA role, both pairs of TAs had the same response, all citing the importance of guiding freshmen in their journey and lending a helping hand in, but most importantly, out of seminar. Ingrid talked to me about how, despite how the structure of seminars limits one-on-one time TAs get with ‘semmies,’ that doesn’t stop her from reaching out outside of seminar and doing what she needs to do then. 


In Oliver’s words, it’s crucial to “stay connected.” When asked about how TAs can extend the role outside the classroom, Kyle reflected that a big part of the job is "finding time to talk to students outside of class, understanding social issues, and having conversations to get a better picture of what's going on." A big part of that is just being present, like saying “hi,” checking in on how a semi’s doing or getting a good sem chant going.


Kyle: “Yeah. Just care. Right?”


“Because some TAs just don’t.”


Your role is important, and you have the potential to make a significant impact. 


The transition to Cate is difficult, so when I asked Anna about the significance of the role, she responded with her personal experience, sharing, “I think it's not talked enough about how hard it is to transition to high school. My transition was especially hard because of Covid, but even without Covid, it is still incredibly hard.” 


Kyle also had something to say about his freshman year: “The reason why I wanted to be a TA, right, was because of Daniel Gorbuzov ‘22. He was my Soph Sem TA, and he really made me feel like I was a part of a bigger community. It was great.” As a senior leader, the TA is a unique role that, according to Oliver Lee, has a harmonic balance of “friend and mentor.” Anna adds, "Having that senior leader, along with your prefect, is good because you have someone to lean on for support. It’s a little easier, sometimes, to talk to seniors instead of an adult when you’re struggling.” For Ingrid, the TA is a liaison between students and adults, and their presence in what she calls the “middle ground” is what makes the role so unique and impactful. 


Being a TA is a highly rewarding experience. 

Kyle: “Getting to know people, bringing the energy, and seeing students grow and change is what makes it so great.”

For Anna, the most rewarding aspect of being a TA is the bond she forms with her semmies. Seeing them excited to greet her from across campus and knowing she’s made a positive impact fills her with joy. “It's a reminder of why I chose to become a TA, especially for the freshmen who seem so young and are just beginning their journey.”


Anna: “I love when I can tell that my semmies like… really do, love me.”

Conclusion

So, while there may be limited freedom to what TAs can do in class, there’s much more to the role than just that. It's still a great opportunity to make a lasting impact on new students coming into Cate. To take advantage of that opportunity, you have to be present, build those connections, and try to make it interesting.




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