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
Student Teacher Conflicts
Problems between students and faculty are relatively rare in the positive educational environment that prevails at the University of Georgia, but such conflicts do arise. For instance, academic dishonesty may generate disciplinary problems, overly assertive students may inadvertently create disruptive classroom situations, or troubled students may become problem students because of their need for counseling. Teaching and learning occur in a dynamic, volatile setting in which tensions of a moment may create misunderstanding and trigger charges of poor instruction, grading inequalities, harassment, or prejudicial treatment. Adherence to established University policies and procedures is essential in trying to prevent problems of these kinds and in dealing with them when they do arise.
Avoiding Student-Teacher Problems
Student-teacher problems can generally be classified in two categories: those of an academic nature and those of a disruptive nature. Many academic problems can be prevented simply by developing a thorough syllabus and sticking to it. In addition to the routine information, such as course content and schedule, required textbooks and outside assignments, the syllabus should contain a clear statement of the standards you will impose regarding such matters as attendance, grading, and academic honesty. Your students have a right to know from the start why you feel these matters are important to the quality of their education.
Information and Communication
Cheating, plagiarism, and disorderly conduct are terms which are not difficult for students to understand, but it is very important that their interpretations of these terms coincide with yours. It is vitally important that your understanding and application of these terms be consistent with established University policies. Information regarding the University’s position on student rights and responsibilities is included in the University of Georgia Student Handbook, which is published annually by the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs. Information regarding the University’s policy on academic honesty may be obtained for distribution to students from Academic Affairs. You are encouraged to review copies with your students at the beginning of each semester.
Confrontation and Resolution
Certain problems, such as concern over an exam grade or the relevance of an assignment, can often be resolved by discussing the matter with the individual. If a confrontation occurs in a public place, it is generally advisable to attempt to move the discussion to a more appropriate setting, such as your office. If it appears that you may not be able to resolve the issue in a satisfactory manner or if it seems that the problem may escalate into an inflammatory conflict, confer with your graduate coordinator or department head as soon as possible regarding further action.
Resources and Action
In the event of more serious problems, it may be necessary to take immediate action of a more direct nature. For instance, in cases of suspected academic dishonesty, you may wish to contact Academic Affairs for advice or assistance. In cases of suspected drug abuse or emotional disturbance, you may wish to contact the University Health Center at (706)-542-1162 or Counseling and Psychological Services at (706)- 542-2273. In the event of violence or illegal activity of any sort, call the University Police immediately at (706)- 542-2200. Inform your department head of any such action as soon as possible and immediately record any pertinent factual information for your possible further use.
Planning and Prevention
To minimize the possibility of personal liability and to protect the students’ rights, avoid any judgmental statements, accusations, or public remarks, written or verbal, regarding a problem to anyone other than officials who have a legitimate need to know. In addition to your faculty supervisor and department head, the appropriate University officials have a legitimate need to be fully informed of such matters. These agencies employ trained personnel with experience in handling such problems to the best interests of all involved, and their operations function to release the teaching staff to focus upon the primary responsibility of helping students learn.
Consequently, it is in your best interest to be informed about and immediately handle any serious problems through appropriate channels. These measures will establish your actions as a matter of record and may open avenues of advice and assistance regarding questions of student rights, teacher responsibility, and/or liability for further actions. Meanwhile, to minimize the possibility of problems, familiarize yourself with all applicable policies relating to students’ rights to privacy, equal opportunity, and so forth.
Accusations of Sexual Harassment and/or Prejudicial Treatment
At a university, the teacher dons many different hats. On any given day, an instructor might serve as an intellectual guide, counselor, mentor, and advisor. Teachers wield a tremendous influence in their students’ lives, and their authority extends well beyond the confines of the classroom. As such, the University of Georgia believes that a sexual or romantic relationship between a teacher and a student, even where consensual, is not compatible with the other roles a teacher must play, and therefore should be avoided.
The University prohibits these relationships. Accusations of sexual harassment and/or of prejudicial treatment probably rank among the most difficult problems a teacher may encounter. These are certainly serious matters if the charges are warranted, and they also can cause great concern for the teacher who may be falsely accused. As with other problems, it is very important to remember that the University has established policies and procedures for handling inflammatory matters and the more quickly you can get a serious problem into official channels, the better. If you should encounter difficulties, however, remember these suggestions: keep calm and act promptly to move the matter into proper channels, act in good faith at all times, and defend yourself through the established channels.
Order in the Classroom
In the classroom, order is generally the rule when teacher and student are engaged in meaningful learning activities; therefore, teachers who are well-prepared, receptive to their students’ needs and interests, and confident of the worth and relevance of the subject they teach should have little cause for concern about the classroom atmosphere. Despite the best preparations, however, some class sessions will fail to hold all the students’ interest; but this inattentiveness seldom results in serious problems--unless the teacher
overreacts to the situation.
In cases of simple student restlessness or inattentiveness, it may be tempting to try to regain student attention and participation by such methods as admonishing those who are inattentive or reminding them to pay attention since the material will be on the next test. But it is generally better to give students the benefit of the doubt and give yourself time to look for possible causes of the problem. Perhaps the material you were presenting was too basic or too advanced for the students, or maybe you needed to involve the students more or perhaps the class could not see the relevance of the material to the rest of your course. Perhaps you simply forgot that it was the Friday before Homecoming. Whatever the possible cause, it is important to assess the situation calmly, take whatever remedial action may be necessary, and try for a better class at the next session. Throughout the course, your conscientious attempt to involve your students and to make the material you present interesting, relevant, and comprehensible will greatly increase the probability of a productive classroom atmosphere.
In the unlikely event that a student should deliberately or inadvertently disrupt the class, it is especially important to deal with the matter in a calm, courteous manner. Report the matter to your graduate coordinator and ask for guidance on any further action. In the case of persistent unruliness and most certainly in the case of actual or threatened violence, report the matter immediately to the University Police at (706) 542- 2200.
You are the teacher in the classroom. Your role as instructor is to preserve the learning environment. In addition to protecting any classroom debate from becoming an attack on any particular individual, keeping a cool head in the classroom when challenged preserves your student’s trust and respect in you as teacher. When possible, look for the teachable moment in an argument. For example, what is the value in hearing opposing viewpoints or challenging commonly held stereotypes? Is there a way to use the content of the argument to serve your teaching goals? Or is student learning best served by defusing the tension and swiftly refocusing students?
When a discussion between students becomes more heated than you would like, you can use the following strategies to transform arguments into productive debate:
- Take a deep breath and try to assess what is happening. Is a student voicing frustration? Is a student enthusiastically expressing an opinion? Are two students misunderstanding each other?
- Whenever possible, encourage students to discuss ideas, not individuals in the classroom.
- If a student attacks another student’s idea, ask that student to restate what he or she thinks the other student meant. Make sure that the interpretation is accurate and allow both students to clarify their statements.
- Ask the students to generate all possible evidence for both sides of a debate as a way of suspending judgment and encouraging reflection. Ask students to find counter examples as well as examples.
- Offer to continue a discussion after class or ask interested students to email you or post their thoughts to eLC, if the topic of the argument is not central to the goals of the class session.
When a student challenges or criticizes you, take the following steps to stay calm and find some value in the exchange:
- Again, take a deep breath, and try to understand the content of the student’s complaint or challenge. Ignore, for a moment, any rudeness; if you respond to the content, the student’s attitude and approach may soften.
- Remain calm and nonjudgmental, no matter how agitated the student becomes. Your emotional response will only become further fuel for the student’s anger. This is especially true if the student makes a personal attack.
- Don’t use your authority as a teacher to simply claim superior knowledge or logic; while in some cases it may be true, it will almost never convince your students, and it discourages their active engagement with ideas.
- Use evidence when disagreeing with a student and ask students to provide evidence for their positions. You may ask other students to evaluate the evidence that you, or the student provide, if the argument is related to course content.
- Never get into a power struggle with a student. As the teacher, you already have the power; any retaliation to a student’s provocation is likely to be viewed as an abuse of power.
- If a student is agitated to the point of being unreasonable, ask him or her to carry the grievance to a higher authority. Do not continue trying to reason with a student who is highly agitated.
In general, make your response as calm as possible and avoid making an issue out of a small incident. Try to use any conflict in the classroom as an opportunity to further your teaching goals: it may be possible to use an argument to clarify material, model critical thinking, skills, foster open-mindedness, and enhance students’ trust in you.