Some teaching assistants are experiencing burnout from dealing with heavy workloads and providing mental health support to their students.

Every week, teaching assistants, or TAs, are typically expected to lead hour-long tutorial sessions, hold office hours and mark assignments, in addition to completing their own coursework. TAs are paid for 192 a term which typically ends up being around 12 hours a week, but the TAs The Ubyssey spoke to often find themselves working overtime.

“I would say that I routinely work over 12 hours … there hasn’t been a week where I haven’t been working on assignments,” said TA Sophie.

At the start of each term, TAs and their assigned professor sign a contract that determines their weekly hours and outlines the number of assignments each assistant is expected to mark. This means that a TA’s workload depends on the professor they work for.

This semester, Sophie — whose name was changed to avoid potential backlash from her professor — said that her professor added four extra assignments to the ones mentioned in their contract. The Ubyssey reviewed a copy of her contract to verify this.

“For me, with 37 students, marking each of the reflections for 15 minutes adds up to 37 extra hours in a semester. Noting that TAs are paid for 12 hours of work a week, I'm essentially missing out on 3 weeks worth of pay,” she wrote in a follow-up email to The Ubyssey.

Taking on unexpected responsibilities

Other TAs have found themselves working overtime as they try to support their students’ mental health.

Jane, another TA who requested anonymity to prevent backlash from her professor, told The Ubyssey that she is consistently working two to three hours more than required each week from responding to emails from students around the globe and staying after each tutorial session to talk with students about their mental health.

“I lead three discussion sections, and I have at least two people who have stayed behind every single week for 13 weeks,” she said.

Jane said that she is happy to provide students with this opportunity, but that it is an unexpected part of her job as a TA that contributes to her own feelings of being overworked.

She also pointed to her office hours as another source of burnout.

“I don’t know whether I have a student come to [talk to me about their mental health], or whether I’m going to have a student come and ask me a question about politics … I need to be ready to be just the most supportive version of myself but also the most intellectually prepared version of myself.”

“It’s much easier to notice that a student is struggling in a physical classroom setting than it is online … there’s a lot more nuance online that is hard to understand.”

— Jane, a UBC teaching assistant

While TAs receive mental health training at the start of each term, Jane believes more attention should be focused on handling these issues in an online setting.

“It’s much easier to notice that a student is struggling in a physical classroom setting than it is online … there’s a lot more nuance online that is hard to understand.”

Jane shared that she has successfully accessed mental health services on campus to help with her own burnout, but that her experience is not universal.

“[I] received support from [those services] but again that is because I chose to do so and I know there are many TAs who have not chosen to do so.”

Struggling to speak up

Despite feeling burnt out, Sophie said that she was fearful of confronting her professor about the heavy workload.

“I definitely think there is a go-with-the-flow mentality with all of the TAs.”

The TA described a situation last semester where she and other TAs covered for a colleague who was hesitant about contacting a professor after suffering an “emergency” while grading the final assignment.

“So the rest of us TAs, we just ended up marking more to compensate for that just so that we wouldn’t bother the prof.”

CUPE 2278, the union representing TAs at UBC and University of Northern British Columbia, said that it is aware of TAs’ discomfort with confronting their professors about heavy workloads. The union said it’s available to help those who are struggling.

“People can absolutely come and talk to us about their problems or their concerns, and we can either be a sounding board, or if they want we can roleplay a scenario so they can practice their language,” said Gillian Glass, the president of the union.

Glass emphasized that any discussion between a TA and the union would remain confidential.

“We have no interest in talking to their instructors or their department until the TA wants us to.”

Glass also said that CUPE plans to host a workshop dedicated to educating TAs on how to have difficult conversations with their professors. The union led a similar event in September last year.

In a written statement, the UBC Centre of Learning and Teaching Technology (CTLT) said that it is available to support TAs who were struggling to confront their professors.

“Now more than ever during the pandemic, effective working relationships between TAs and instructors are key for students to feel supported in their learning,” CTLT Academic Director Christina Hendricks wrote.

Hendricks mentioned multiple programs aimed at helping both TAs and instructors improve their working relationship.

The director also encouraged TAs to reach out to the centre and access campus resources such as UBC Student Counselling Services and the UBC Student Assistance Program.if they were experiencing burnout.

But Sophie believes that UBC could do more to address burnout.

“More TAs should just be hired so that work can be split, because I know some TAs as a result have a hard time balancing their own workloads,” she said.