When you ask a graduate teaching assistant what the best part of teaching is, many are sure to respond that they enjoy some aspect of the teacher-student relationship. Whether it’s meeting one-on-one with a student who is considering a major, or the rush that comes from seeing a classroom engaged in a lecture or discussion, these positive interactions with students re-affirm our decision to prepare for teaching and scholarship. Previous sections have already addressed ways in which you can establish positive interactions with your students, via email, office hours, well-prepared class meetings, and prompt testing feedback. This section addresses other special teaching situations, suggests ways to prevent classroom conflict, and provides strategies to ameliorate any conflict that may occur.
INTERNATIONAL TEACHING ASSISTANTS
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 problem areas that warrant careful attention. These problems and some practical suggestions for dealing with them are discussed below.
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. Over the past two decades, a trend toward a more student-centered curricula, civil rights legislation, and court decisions have fostered an egalitarian ideal among youth 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.
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.
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.
In the United States, 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.
In the United States, it is increasingly true that a college education is a routine expectation rather than a unique opportunity. For some, a college degree still represents an opportunity for social and economic advancement; for others, a degree represents merely maintaining established standards. Some of your students will therefore be eager for knowledge and give your course their best; whereas others may enroll in the course only because it is required. Experienced educators recommend teaching to the average ability level of those students who exhibit an interest in the subject.
An International Perspective
Most students believe that anything worth 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 of that will add interest to your teaching.
At times, students reflect a challenging attitude that can be very disconcerting to teachers unaccustomed to informal teacher-student relationships. In this country, persons presenting themselves as authorities, specialists, or experts on a subject are generally expected to be willing and able to stand up to challenge on that subject; therefore, a student’s questioning of information usually represents a sincere desire to better understand that information rather than a personal attack on the teacher.
The freedom to challenge authority, which is a product of the egalitarian attitude discussed earlier, can be an asset to a teacher’s effort to help students learn to think for themselves. If an authority, concept, or principle can stand up to challenge, the challenger is generally convinced of its worth. A student’s “prove-it-to-me” attitude actually represents a potent opportunity for learning.
In contrast to student assertiveness, student reserve seldom enhances learning. Although a lack of participation may occasionally represent a lack of student interest, it is more likely a result of uncertainty. Just as you may feel uneasy about facing a class of “American students,” some of your students may be equally intimidated by the presence of a “foreign teacher.” Consequently, what may initially appear to be disinterest or aloofness may actually be a lack of confidence.
The problem described above may be compounded by the diversity of cultural and ethnic backgrounds represented in many classes. For a student already experiencing difficulty with the English language in general, a teacher with an unfamiliar accent may represent a double threat. Learning to recognize and overcome problems such as these early in a course is one of the most important responsibilities you will face as a teacher. Experienced non-native teachers can be an excellent source of ideas for handling such matters. Your departmental supervisor and/or graduate coordinator, who has probably encountered similar situations in working with other international teaching assistants, is an invaluable source of assistance.
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 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.
Whatever the nature of communication difficulties, it is the teacher’s responsibility to make the extra effort required to be clearly understood. If for any reason you suspect problems with your competency of English, you should take immediate corrective action. Whatever your proficiency in spoken English, there are several precautions you may take to insure that your students can understand you in the classroom. First of all, an open discussion of this issue on the first day of class will prevent student uncertainty and will help create an atmosphere in which students will feel free to seek clarification whenever it is needed. Using written handouts of assignments, lab instructions, or key points of lectures 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.
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 double sure that the students clearly understand you.
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.
SPECIAL TEACHING SITUATIONS
Students with Disabilities
On the University of Georgia campus, there are a number of students with a variety of physical and learning disabilities. Working with such students provides you the opportunity to make the learning environment more effective; you will become a better teacher for all students by increasing the variety of your instructional approaches. The University of Georgia adheres to a policy of equal educational opportunity for all students with disabilities as provided by federal regulations. The Disability Resource Center, an affiliate of the University's Division of Student Affairs, can be reached at (706)-542-8719 and supplies transportation and other services for students with disabilities.
Learning disabilities, which are officially listed as a handicap covered by federal regulations, are not always obvious to the teacher. In some cases, students may have learning disabilities of which they are not even aware. The Disability Resource Center advises that a learning disability may be suspected when there is a consistently inordinate discrepancy between a student’s ability and performance. Additional information concerning the nature of learning disabilities or other disabilities is available from the Disability Resource Center.
Notification of Special Needs
Whenever possible, the Disability Resource Center will give instructors advance notice of a student’s special needs. In most cases, you will have time to make any accommodations before your class begins. In some instances, however, you will have to assess the situation and initiate the necessary arrangements on the spot. The University’s provisions for assisting students with disabilities are thorough and effective, and chances are, you will not encounter any problems. If you do run into difficulties, however, contact your graduate coordinator and the Disability Resource Center immediately, and they will gladly assist you.
The Disability Resource Center can provide a student with access to the educational site as well as some operational assistance in the classroom; but as with any other student, the ultimate learning success of a student with disabilities is directly dependent upon effective student-teacher interaction. Despite the best efforts of all concerned, feelings of discomfort or awkwardness toward a student can cause problems. The following information and suggestions will help to alleviate any concerns you may have.
Effective Student-Teacher Communication
Students with disabilities are as diverse as any other group of UGA students. They are bright, talented, motivated, positive, enthusiastic, goal-oriented, and academically prepared. It is important to remember to focus on a student’s individuality rather than on the student’s disability. Get to know your student, discuss the student’s concerns openly on a personal basis and turn your attention to the accommodation of his or her learning needs. The more quickly you can establish open channels of communication, the better. Once you get to know the student, it is likely that any feelings of pity or awkwardness you originally felt for them will be replaced with respect and appreciation for the individual’s determination and resourcefulness.
Positive recognition and acceptance of a student’s disability are essential first steps to establishing effective student-teacher communications. A disability is a personal matter and should be treated as such. On the other hand, do not ignore a student’s disability or pretend that it does not exist, as this can cause problems. Given acceptance and reasonable accommodations, students with disabilities can realize their learning potential as well as other students.
Reasonable accommodation indicates flexibility in adjusting the educational environment and instructional methodology to the student’s needs. While students with disabilities, instructors, and the Disability Resource Center share a collective responsibility to settle on reasonable accommodations, listed below are some suggestions of ways that you can design and run your class to help students with disabilities achieve academic success.
•Students with hearing impairments can be accommodated with an alternate source of information, such as copies of the lecture notes or a transcript of the audiovisual presentation. Many students with auditory disabilities read lips; therefore, face a student with a hearing impairment when speaking. If you have a beard, it may partially mask your lip movements. Be careful to speak slowly and carefully, but don’t exaggerate or overemphasize lip movements. Also, be sure that the student is located where she or he can clearly see you, the board, and any other instructional equipment. Try to avoid standing in front of windows or other sources of light. The glare from behind you makes it difficult to read lips and other facial expressions.
•Students with visual impairments will need special arrangements to receive information presented in charts, diagrams, handouts and displays. If you have any students who will need the reading assignments on audiotape or in Braille, it is always helpful to have your syllabus completed a month in advance and available for Disability Services to access.
Students with a mobility impairment will need access to the classroom and will need to make special arrangements before field trips. In the event that your classroom is inaccessible to a particular student, contact Disability Services.
•Students with learning disabilities may require unique accommodations for notetaking and/or testing. Your syllabus should include a disability and health-related statement. Review the statement with your students
on the first day of class. Students who will need to receive academic accommodations should register with the Disability Resource Center at (706) 542-8719 or initiate their request online at http://www.drc.uga.edu.
It is extremely important to recognize that reasonable accommodation does not imply a lowering of academic standards for students with disabilities. With reasonable accommodation, students with disabilities generally expect to be evaluated by the academic standard of the course. To lower these standards would be demeaning to their personal determination, dignity, and achievement. Such action could also create serious problems of resentment among the other students if they suspect that a classmate is being given unfair advantages. Likewise, in addition to making the student with disabilities feel coddled or otherwise treated as less than a responsible class member, an instructor’s overly solicitous attitude will often magnify the feelings of awkwardness among the other students. After reasonable accommodation has been provided, it is in the best interests of a student with disabilities and the class in general to extend to that student the same sort of acceptance, respect, and expectations accorded the other class members.
Finally, remember that all disabilities are not visible, so encourage all of your students to let you know if they have learning disabilities or other challenges that may need accommodation. For instance, students with lung disorders or allergies might be seriously affected by perfumes or dust from lab experiments. Physical stamina may be a problem for some people with disabilities
and should be considered when planning extended work sessions and field trips.
Many problems for students with disabilities can be overcome with simple, common sense accommodations. For the most part, your instructional accommodations for students with disabilities will benefit your entire class.
Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Students
All students vary greatly in their individuality. These recommendations, adapted from Lopez and Chism in their article “Classroom Concerns of Gay and Lesbian Students: The Invisible Minority,” provide some thoughtful suggestions on how to improve your student-teacher interactions.
•Recognize that it is very likely that you do teach GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered) students. The students may or may not make their presence known, but they are there.
•Understand that many GLBT students are in the process of coming out to themselves and others during their college years. There is likely to be stress associated with this period, and it may affect their academic work.
•Students will vary as to what kind of support they will want and need as they come out. Regardless of the sexual identity of the instructor, you can present yourself as a gay-affirming person, and let students seek out certain instructors as they choose.
•Students will make their decisions to identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered only under conditions that appear safe and comfortable to them. Because they often experience the campus climate as hostile or threatening to their physical well-being, instructors should not put them on the spot or urge them to disclose if students do not judge it wise.
•GLBT students may sometimes feel they have to devote time to the quest for equal rights. Teachers recognize that they may feel torn between these responsibilities and their academic work.
•Students have strong preferences for terms used by people outside the gay and lesbian community. The students in the Lopez and Chism study preferred lesbian women and gay men to the term homosexual. They did not seem completely pleased with either the term sexual orientation or sexual preference: a better, but not perfect alternative would be sexual identity.
•Teachers should try to create safe environments for students so that they can view classrooms as places where they do not have to be fearful. Although students do not want teachers to repress others’ freedom of expression, they expect them to take strong action if homophobic remarks are made. If teachers avoid issues, students are likely to take it as a sign of complicity.
•GLBT students judge professors’ attitudes by the language they use, their responses to situations that come up in class, their inclusiveness in course content decisions, and by the way in which they respond to student work on lesbian and gay topics.
•Students feel that professors have a responsibility as scholars and teachers to educate themselves on GLBT issues and to include pertinent material in their courses.
•Teachers should encourage students--whether gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or heterosexual--to pursue gay and lesbian topics in their independent work, such as papers or presentations. They should try to give fair and honest criticism to student work and avoid being threatened by or minimizing topics with which they are unfamiliar.
Students and faculty looking for support, resources, or education can contact the University of Georgia's GLBT Resource Center