International Teaching Assistant’s Guide
In addition to expertise in their fields, international teaching assistants add a valuable international dimension to the University’s instructional program. Because of the support provided by their departments, most new, non-native teaching assistants adjust to their instructional role without undue difficulties. However, experienced international teaching assistants have indicated several challenging areas that warrant careful attention. These challenges and some practical suggestions for dealing with them are discussed below.
Characteristics of the U.S. Classroom
Instructional expectations differ widely from country to country. Formal student-teacher relations may be the norm in some nations, but this is usually not common in the United States. Informality is an accepted standard in dress, speech, and interpersonal relations; consequently, your students may address you with an honorific title such as Mr., Ms., or Dr., but otherwise approach you much as they would another student. In some departments, teaching assistants are addressed by their first name. You can let your students know how you prefer to be addressed (e.g., [first name], Ms. [last name]) either in the syllabus or on the first day of class.
This egalitarian attitude does not indicate disrespect; rather, such a relaxed atmosphere generally indicates acceptance. Conversely, a teacher’s reserve and formality in interpersonal relationships is often perceived as either an expression of condescension toward students or as a lack of self-confidence. Most UGA students consider themselves to be in an educational partnership with their teachers, and partners in a common enterprise are expected to be open and honest in their dealings with each other.
Show Your Interest in the Content
Student learning is the goal for both parties in an educational partnership, so you are justified in expecting your students to do their best in the course. They are justified in expecting you to be sincerely interested in their individual academic problems and progress. If your students realize that you are a friendly, understanding person who is aware of their needs and interests, they will feel much more confident in approaching you for clarification of communication problems. Frequent announcement of your willingness to meet with students during your office hours will reassure them of your accessibility. Likewise, arriving a few minutes early for classes will provide an informal opportunity to get acquainted with your students.
As the teacher, you are expected to be knowledgeable about your subject, but your students also recognize that you are human. Therefore, if they raise any question you cannot answer, they will respect an honest admission of your lack of knowledge. They still expect an answer, and the answer should be obtained and shared with the class as soon as possible. If such events occur too often, however, more thorough teacher preparation is necessary to maintain student confidence in your mastery of the subject.
Students will also appreciate your being understanding and helpful with regard to their occasional intellectual shortcomings. If they cannot answer a question, they do not like to be humiliated in front of their peers; but neither do they expect you to tolerate such flagrant student irresponsibility. Consequently, a balance of tact and firmness is the key to effective management of most classroom situations.
Generally, most students like to know how well they are doing as the course progresses, and any constructive criticism you may offer a student will usually be accepted as evidence of your interest in his or her personal progress. In most cases, such feedback is best offered on an individual basis rather than in a classroom situation. Such consideration for your students as individuals will greatly enhance their appreciation of you as a person. This sort of acceptance of the teacher is often as important to the learning process as respect for a teacher’s expertise.
Typical High School Preparation
Heavy emphasis is placed on social and personal development in the curricula of many secondary schools. First-year students in this country may not be as well trained in specific disciplines as are students in countries where discipline-centered curricula prevail. In addition, there are no qualifying examinations for entrance into introductory courses at the University of Georgia. Therefore, student abilities generally vary considerably within most classes.
Also, while some nations provide for the routine screening of students to select the most capable as candidates for higher education, a goal in the United States has traditionally been to provide as much formal education as possible for everyone. National testing standards exist for the purposes of student guidance and scholarship awards, but there are no national standards for college entrance. Generally, any person who has a high school diploma or equivalent and who can arrange to pay the tuition can seek a college education at some institution in the United States. Enrollment in a specific college or university depends on the space limitations and independent admissions standards of that institution. At the University of Georgia, the admissions requirements are designed to insure that only those students who have the ability to pursue an education at the university are admitted.
An International Perspective
Most students believe that any learning is useful for understanding the world around them. Therefore, if you can relate the course content to their needs, interests, or opportunities, you can foster learning. Your own cultural background and professional experiences should be a source of information and examples that will add interest to your teaching.
Your department’s appointment of you as a teaching assistant implies that you have satisfied the University’s current standard for competency in spoken English language, but if you are an international TA, you may still experience considerable communication difficulties with your students, especially at the beginning of a course. Students rightfully expect clarity and precision in classroom communications.
If English is not your first language, you should acknowledge this early in the course. You can ask your students to let you know when you speak too quickly, quietly, or if students don’t understand something. It is always good practice to face the class while you speak. Any problems your students have comprehending what you say will be magnified if you attempt to speak and write on the board at the same time. If you wait until you finish writing to elaborate, your students will have a chance to read the information and then listen to you discuss it. Also, the use of questioning techniques or discussion teaching methods will help you to make ensure students clearly understand you. Using written handouts of assignments, lab instructions, or key points of lecture for the first few days will enable your students to receive essential information while becoming accustomed to your teaching. Writing new terms on the board as you introduce them will make sure that students understand the terms while providing them a chance to hear how you pronounce the words.
Careful application of the ideas discussed above should result in the quick resolution of any problems relating to your use of English as a second language. Should problems persist beyond a few days, however, you should seek help at the Center for Teaching and Learning (706)-542-1355.