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Legal Issues Teaching Assistants Face

A teaching assistant (TA) is generally in a graduate school enrollment. A college or university faculty member employs a graduate teaching assistant to teach or tutor undergraduate students. They usually work on a temporary contract. They work either on a full-time or less than full-time basis. The duties and responsibilities of TAs vary from school to school and from professor to professor. This program may assist in the TAs professional development.

Teaching assistants can have many duties in undergraduate education. They may help with student learning, office hours, and classroom management. TAs work on their teaching skills, communication skills, pedagogy, and teaching methods. TAs may also help with coursework, maintaining contact information, and giving exams. This can include small group discussion sessions and face-to-face class sessions.

While actual duties may vary, the primary responsibility of a TA is to help the professor teach their class according to the syllabus and enhance effective teaching. This gives them teaching experience in a higher education program. They can also improve the mentoring of students and help with student retention, preserving mental health and time management.

TA Unions: Students or Employees?

Unions are a way for employees to gain power through organizing. They allow employees to secure better working conditions, benefits, and wages. Unions give power to employees mainly through the process of collective bargaining. Teaching is a profession that is widely and publicly unionized. For TAs, unionization is complicated since unionizing is only for employees. Are TAs students or employees? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question.

Being able to unionize could help TAs in various ways. It would give TAs the opportunity to engage in collective bargaining with their employers. A teaching assistant union would also give TAs more power in securing better benefits, higher wages, and improved working conditions.

Many public universities have TA unions, including the California State University system. In public universities, state collective bargaining laws cover TAs. Some states include TAs in such laws, while others don't mention if they include TAs. Ohio is the only state that excludes TAs from collective bargaining.

While state collective bargaining laws apply to public universities, they don't govern private universities. Instead, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) covers private universities. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has heard several cases involving whether TAs are employees or students. It has switched its position several times over the years. An NLRB decision in 2004 involving Brown University took away the collective bargaining rights of graduate students at private universities. Since that decision, the drive for teaching assistant unions at private universities continues. An NLRB decision in 2016 involving graduate students at Columbia University gave them the right to unionize as employees. Here is a list of unions for teaching assistants.

Sexual Harassment

Whether it's between students or by a professor or university staff, sexual harassment at school is a problem. Again, whether a TA is an employee will change the consequences of sexual harassment. If a TA is an employee, any sexual harassment by a professor or other university staff toward a TA would fall under employment law. This includes federal workplace discrimination laws. If a TA is a student, the harasser would violate Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on sex in any educational activity or program.

Each college has its own policies for handling sexual harassment. These policies are usually in a university's employee handbook. Northwestern University tells TAs to report any sexual harassment they witness or hear about. At the University of Florida, any teaching assistant who knows a student is facing sexual harassment must report it to the director of employee relations. Failure to report a case of sexual harassment could result in disciplinary action.

Getting Legal Help

If you have questions about being a teaching assistant, contact an education attorney in your area.

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