On being a teaching assistant


After the end of last semester, I was offered an opportunity to help out with a class with my instructor Nancy Lippe on Nonprofit Leadership in Experimental College class, and I gladly took it up. I have always loved ExCollege classes for their experiential learning (and teaching) aspect, and I knew I wanted to be a part of a learning community. More than anything, I learned some important lessons about myself, from being there and interacting with people there.

There were rocky moments, particularly at the beginning when we realized the class was much smaller than we thought (only five, including me). We hoped there could be eight or ten students.

Given that I was taking 5.5 credit this semester as well as being more involved in other stuff, I did have some doubt and questioned my own commitment. I don’t want to commit if I couldn’t commit fully. The other reason for my reluctance is the fear that it’s not worth my time. The fear was real, but I recalled an advice for young people by Peter Senge: When we do something in line with our purpose and hear ourselves saying “This is too small for me”, be aware that it is the ego speaking. Mother Teresa once said that “There is no great thing; there is only thing done with great love”, and it could not have been truer in my case. Helping with the class is already aligned with my purpose, “to learn and to co-create learning”, and I would be better off paying attention to what is there instead of wandering about what could be.

Anyway, I sensed a similar frustration from Nancy after the first few classes, that she was aware of my reluctance. One evening after class, I shared with her my fear, and she said “Well, I’m in it, and I’ll make you in it”. That was exactly what I needed to hear the most at that time. It is so important to work with someone else to keep ourselves accountable. One reason that leadership is hard is because it is lonely. That’s why in many organizations, including the nonprofit I’ve worked with for a while (SEALNet) the co-leadership model was used. It is helpful in preparing ourselves transition to leadership role, because a strong motivation for a great many of us is to not let others down. Ask any startup founders and they will tell you the most important asset they have is their co-founders and team, not only because of the complimentary skills but also because they keep others motivated and accountable when things get rough (which is almost all the time for startup)

Somehow I was really inspired after the short conversation that night. On the way back to my room, I asked myself: how might I turn this situation to my advantage? Small class means more interaction time, so we will have more opportunity to hear from each and everyone, to dive deeper into ourselves. That was exactly what I wanted – why on Earth did I even worry in the first place? I’m learning the same lesson again and again: Whenever I have an expectation, be aware of the potential disappointment that comes with it. Be aware when expectation distracts me from the present. Stay with what is. This will take a lifetime to learn, and I’m thankful for this experience.

Going to this class for 2.5 hours on a Monday night feels strikingly similar to going to the gym: I’m often half excited, half dreaded before going, yet I always feel fulfilled after. I told myself often for all of my commitments, “if I am not mentally present then why do I even bother coming?”. Yet in real life we all find ourselves distracted all the time. That is where we really need people – there is something about the presence of others that pull us into the moment and keep us engaged.

Here are some other small learning points.

  • On asking questions: the intimacy of the small class gave me the excuse to ask more personal questions, those that push people a bit out of comfort zone. In a class like this it feels much easier to get a response (not that I don’t ask probing questions already in normal setting). Another related point is that it really requires genuine curiosity to ask good question. I have stock questions to ask, but I know I only feel good when I truly care about the person who answers it rather than just asking a cool question. The reward of doing so is definitely worth it: one of the best experiences in the class is to listen and to be humbled and to admire those who shared even more.
  • Step up, step down: Finding the balance between talking and listening is hard. Being a TA, I tended to give the space to others; at the same time I do feel like do have a lot to share too. Throughout of the course of the class, there was time when I wasn’t sure what exactly I was contributing to the class (I wasn’t participating in much of the work and wasn’t doing much assignment). Now I need to believe more in myself and the specific gifts that I could offer: the willingness to ask questions to dive deeper and to provide contradicting perspectives. Over time and experience, I learn how to have a better sense of where someone is at in their learning journey, which allows me to do what is necessary at that point to help.
  • Reliability: I still have punctuality issues and did not complete some assignments that I took up. I deluded myself by saying that the boundaries weren’t clear – “perhaps a TA didn’t have to do much of the work?” – but clearly I could have taken the responsibility to clarify what kind of role and involvement I have in the class. These seemingly small thing would affect the level of trust of others on me (I bet it already did). To work on it, I will ask my future collaborators to call me out when I am not being reliable.

The most fulfilling part was seeing that people had the opportunities to work together during the class and how excited everyone was to continue a year-long program starting in the Fall. I felt like I’ve contributed my part by helping plant and water the seeds of good relationships. There is some wish-we-could-have-done, but I’m contented with where we are.

Anyway, some pictures for celebration!


Our cosy ceremony with some nonprofit leaders in the area


Everyone, including serious-looking professionals, can draw!


“Journey to the future of philanthropy” – a collaborative art piece. I made up a general journey map and let everyone draw on it. It turned out to be super cool!


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