This is based on a short talk I have given several times to new TAs (mostly new graduate students) at Carleton. It's very basic. I think it should work for most subjects, not just economics. (Though maybe not as well for science and engineering where TAs run labs?). I think it should work for most Canadian universities too, and maybe outside Canada.
I have no special expertise in this area. But I do have a lot of experience, because I have taught a lot of big courses with a lot of TAs. You will probably be working for someone like me, so you need to know what I expect.
1. This is a job. It isn't just a way to give money to graduate students. Sometimes it will be a really challenging job that requires all your ability, like trying to explain some difficult economic (whatever) concept. Sometimes it will be a really boring job that anyone could do, like adding up grades. In both cases it matters that you do this job well. If you add up the grades wrong we might fail a student who should have passed.
2. Your reputation matters. You should do your job well because it's the right thing to do. But I'm going to appeal to your self-interest as well as to your moral sentiments. For most of you, even though you might have flipped burgers in the past, this is your first professional job as an economist (or whatever). And it's a very small world. If you don't care about doing this job well, word will probably get out, and you might find it harder to get a good job later. If you do your job well, you can ask the prof for a reference. Future employers don't just care about your grades; they want to hire someone who isn't a pain to work with. A good reference from a prof you have TA'd for may count more than a good reference from a prof who has taught you. Plus, if you take this job seriously, you should find it fun. Update: And by teaching others economics you will learn and understand economics better yourself.
3. Profs (the ones you TA for). You are the Teaching Assistant. The prof is the one in charge of the course. Most profs will give you a fair amount of discretion in how you do your job, but if the prof tells you to teach it this way, or to grade it that way, that is what you do. (Though if the prof tells you to do something seriously crazy, have a quiet chat with the department chair).
One thing you need to remember about profs is that nobody hired them for their managerial skills. And managing you is a long way down their list of priorities. Your manager at the burger place was probably a much better manager. Don't expect too much, and try to keep yourself organised.
4. Students (your students). Go easy on the students, especially first year students. They don't know their way around universities, and universities are very weird places, with a very weird culture. Don't expect them to know all the rules. Remember what it was like for you when you first arrived. And don't expect them to know any economics either. Get one of your own first year essays. Read it, and die of embarrassment. Yes, you really were that bad once. And then remember: you were one of the brighter ones.
Your students are certainly not your enemies, but they aren't really your friends either. Don't put yourself in a conflict of interest where it would be difficult to give an F to a student who deserves an F. Or be seen as difficult. And if you fail to follow this advice and do find yourself in a conflict of interest, then tell someone (like the prof), so it can be fixed.
5. Grading. Grading tests, assignments, exams, and maybe essays, is usually the main part of a TA's job. A lot of new TAs are worried about grading. "How is it even possible to decide what letter (or number) grade to put on each of this pile of exams?" Don't worry. I don't know how it works either, but it does work. As soon as you have read two exams, you will be able to tell if one is better than the other, and whether it's just a little bit better or a lot better. "But how do I translate that into a specific letter grade?" Here's how I do it. I follow the "functional theory of grading": a grade is what a grade lets the student do. Just read the text you have to grade, ignore everything else, and ask yourself: "What sort of student wrote this?"
F means: "This student learnt nothing in the course, and should not be at university. A random person off the street could have done as well".
D means: "This student shows some signs of having learned something, but really doesn't get it, and should switch to another subject."
C means: "This student sort of gets it, and is OK to continue in Economics."
B means: "This student should be in Honours economics, and maybe should think about doing a Masters.
A means: "This student is future PhD material".
A+ means: "This student should become a prof."
Some profs give you very strict answer sheets and grading schemes. Follow it, but be ready to show an exam to the prof if the grading scheme makes no sense in this particular case. Others just let you get on with it and use your own judgement.
If you are grading with other TAs, you want to try to ensure you are all grading consistently. I suggest you do this. Get together with the other TAs, plus the prof if possible, and all go through a few exams together. All read the same exam, then on the count of three, all TAs call out a grade at the same time. Briefly discuss your differences, then go on to the next exam, and repeat. After 3 or 4 exams, you will converge and all be giving about the same grade
And don't lose the grades! Make copies.
6. Leading Discussion groups/tutorials. The hardest part of this job is getting all the students to participate. We all fail, and you will fail too. Rather than just throwing a question out there, and waiting hopelessly for a student to pick it up (it's either the same student every time, or none at all) try breaking it up into bits, and go round the room asking each student one part. Sometimes this works.
Some new TAs are scared of being in front of a class full of students. Don't be. Most of the students are more scared of you than you are of them. And it's not like high school. The ones who sat at the back making trouble at high school mostly never went on to university anyway, unless they got their act together. And they aren't forced to come to class. But if worse does come to worst, and some are making trouble, and you have told them twice to stop it, then tell them to leave, and if they don't leave, then you leave the class yourself, immediately. Call security; it's their problem, not yours. This almost never happens. But knowing in advance what you would do if it did happen gives you a lot more confidence.
Some new TAs are scared they might be asked a question they don't know how to answer. Don't worry. This will happen, but it's nothing to be scared of. Just say you don't know. Nearly all students are very forgiving, if you just admit that. You can tell them to ask the prof. Or you can say you need to think about it, and will try to answer next week. Or you can say "Hmmm. I don't know. Let's see if we can figure it out together. I wonder if the textbook says anything that might help us?" (Actually, this can sometimes be a good thing to say even if you do know the answer.) Just don't BS the answer. And if you do say something wrong, which probably will happen, it's perfectly OK to say you said something wrong and are going to try again to get it right.
Speak slowly and clearly and loudly enough to be understood. This is especially important if you have (what Canadian students will see as) an accent. You might be perfectly fluent in English, but if Canadian students have never heard someone speak with an accent like yours they will probably find it very difficult to understand you. It's your job to compensate by speaking more slowly and clearly than normal, and to use the board as backup too. [I have a strong British accent, but I normally get by OK because Canadian students have heard British accents on TV. But I got badly caught out just recently. I said "So the elasticity is nought point five". The students all gave me a puzzled look. I checked my math, which was right for once, and gave them a puzzled look back. After a very confused discussion, we figured out they had heard me as saying "So the elasticity is not point five". Canadians say "zero point five".]
7. Office hours. For the first few weeks, almost no students will show up at all. So it's very tempting to not bother showing up yourself. Resist temptation. Just bring some of your own work to do if they don't show up.
Your main job here is to try to explain difficult concepts clearly and simply so the weaker students can understand them. This is hard. Try to use concrete examples. Do not say: "Country A has a comparative advantage over country B in producing good X if the opportunity cost of producing good X in terms of good Y is lower in A than in B." Instead say: "Suppose the opportunity cost of one apple in Canada is half a banana. Suppose the opportunity cost of one apple in the US is one banana. Then Canada has a comparative advantage over the US in producing apples, because Canada has a lower opportunity cost of apples than the US." Use different examples, and try to explain it as many different ways as possible: words, pictures, numerical examples, whatever, because different students learn in different ways. Go from the specific to the general; from the concrete to the abstract; not vice versa.
So, for those who have worked as TAs, what other advice did you wish someone had given you when you first started?