American Students (for International TAs)
are a teaching assistant from a country other than the United States (an
international teaching assistant or ITA), your experiences teaching at
the University of Virginia differ in some ways from those of American
TAs. All new TAs experience a shift in perspective when they move from
being a student to being a teacher. But as an ITA you face particular
challenges and some surprises as you reach across cultural differences
to interact with your American students. Certain American assumptions
about students and learning may differ from those in your culture. By
examining assumptions-both yours and your students'- you will better understand
your students and become a more effective teacher in an American setting.
What Do U.Va. Students Already Know?
in U.Va. classrooms may surprise you not only by their informality of
dress but also by their academic preparation. Although most U.Va. students
were at the top of their high school graduating classes, they come with
a wide variety of educational backgrounds. Because the United States has
no standardized national curriculum, individual course content and student
preparation differ, and you may find unexpected gaps in students' knowledge.
In addition, the amount and sophistication of equipment varies among high
schools; some students may have no experience with what you consider basic
countries, higher education is reserved for a few; in the United States,
more than half of the high school graduates attend college, and students
enter U.Va. with various goals and interests. Some are looking for intellectual
development or career preparation; others seek independence through various
personal, social, and cultural experiences. If your expectations about
students' previous training and interest in your course are inappropriately
high, you will certainly become disappointed and discouraged. To teach
successfully, you may need more realistic expectations.
students in many other countries, American students normally follow a
broad range of courses during their first two years in college and generally
choose a "major," or area of concentration, by the third year.
Since TAs often teach first- or second-year students in introductory courses,
you may find that students' preparation and reasons for taking your course
vary widely. Before classes begin, ask your supervising faculty member
or an experienced TA about the expected level of students' preparation.
Find out who usually takes your course and why, and find out all you can
about the course: is it introductory, part of a sequence, required? What
are the prerequisites, if any?
first day of class, ask your students about their background and interest
in taking the course (see "The First Day of Class"). Ask them
to list on index cards related courses they have taken and their reasons
for taking your course. As you teach, keep their varied levels and interests
in mind; check regularly to make sure they understand.
How Should You Interact with Students?
informality of U.Va. students in class and in their relations with professors
and TAs may surprise or even shock you. It is not unusual to see students
in class eating or drinking, putting their feet on chairs, and reading
newspapers. When you don't know how to deal with unfamiliar classroom
behaviors, consult an American TA in your department or observe other
TAs' sections to see how their students behave and how the instructor
reacts. If some behaviors annoy or distract you or others, make specific
rules for your class after consulting with your supervisor. (See also
"Interacting with Students.")
students also interact informally with the instructors. They often ask
questions in a way that may appear to challenge the teacher. Rest assured
that American teachers are respected; but, unlike teachers in some countries,
they are not regarded as absolute authorities who cannot be questioned,
doubted, or approached. More importantly, American professors encourage
students to challenge them and to think for themselves because such behavior
lets the instructor know that the students are learning and are involved
with the course material. Teachers encourage students to have independent
opinions and to make the course relevant to their own interests and goals.
Students are often more casual with teachers they like and respect; they
also appreciate the chance to discuss viewpoints that do not necessarily
agree with the teacher's ideas.
American students expect and appreciate from their instructors? Here are
a few common expectations, together with suggestions about how you can
successfully respond to them even though your cultural expectations may
students expect to be recognized as individuals, in and out of class;
and they appreciate friendly teachers who in turn communicate something
about themselves as individuals. You need to learn students' names and
use them in class. Most often, American instructors call students by
their first names; many TAs allow students to use their first names,
although such informality is certainly not required. If you prefer to
use your family name, do so; if you use your family name as your familiar
name, explain that that is the name your friends use in your country.
Also, let your students know who you are as a person. American students
want to learn about life in other countries; some have traveled extensively,
and many others would like to. In class, share information from your
want teachers to be approachable, available for questions, and responsive
to helping them learn, even informally or outside of class. When you
can, go to class early for informal conversations. Invite students to
your office hours for a ten-minute getacquainted appointment. Be flexible
in accommodating students for office-hour appointments, but do not feel
compelled to rearrange your schedule for them. Before mid-term or final
exams, hold special office hours or review sessions. During office hours,
students may want to discuss more than just questions about your course;
they may seek general advice or ideas about study strategies. Furthermore,
they may not know how to ask the questions they need for clarification.
Be patient and offer various versions of the question; if they feel
you are not judging their ignorance, they will feel less threatened
by exposing it to you (see "Interacting with Students").
expect teachers to fully explain course material, the details of course
requirements, and the reason for grades they receive. Your department
should provide a syllabus and grading scheme for your course; be sure
you understand them and can answer students' questions about them. Make
all assignments and deadlines clear (see "Preparing a Course").
Grade and return assignments and exams promptly, giving written comments
to help students improve (see "Evaluating Students' Work").
If in doubt about the grading scale, consult with your supervisor or
an experienced American TA.
value interacting with the teacher and other students in the class.
Allow time for questions, and elicit their comments.
students expect that their mistakes will be treated as part of learning.
Consider mistakes as your best opportunity to discover how they're thinking.
Why did the student make that particular mistake? How can you explain
the right answer? What can you do next time to improve your presentation
and avoid misunderstanding? Respond to students' errors politely and
patiently. Above all, avoid ridiculing or belittling students.
often look to TAs to translate the formal language of the lecture into
everyday language they can understand. Make sure you can explain technical
and professional terms to a beginner. Use concrete examples to illustrate
students like knowledgeable instructors who are willing to admit that
they do not know something. Prepare for class thoroughly. Anticipate
areas of difficulty for your students and prepare responses to potential
questions. If unexpected questions arise and you are unsure of the answers,
tell the students, "I don't know, but I'll find out."
How Can You Improve Your Communication Skills?
think that your biggest problem is your English. And because English is
not your native language, your students might fear they won't understand
you and will miss valuable information. Here are a few suggestions to
help you improve your communication skills:
that language is only part of the way we communicate. People from different
cultures use nonverbal, or body, language and even spoken language in
very different ways. An American smile is usually a sign of amusement;
a Japanese smile may indicate embarrassment. Questions in English normally
provoke an immediate response; questions in Chinese require a certain
amount of thought from the person responding. Students will interpret
your eye contact, gestures, facial expressions, and other nonverbal
messages by the American system, and you will interpret theirs through
your own. Different systems are likely to cause misunderstandings and
- Study how
American students and instructors interact. Note the signals that show
they're listening and the expressions that show agreement or disagreement,
interest or boredom, understanding or confusion. Use as many of these
signals as you can. If you regularly use nonverbal behaviors from your
culture that might cause misunderstanding, tell your students what they
are and what they mean. As soon as you can, have your class videotaped
and consult with your supervisor, an American friend or a TRC staff
member to analyze how effectively you communicate with your American
- Do all
you can to improve your English. Pick up a copy of "Things To
Do If You 'Have No Time'" from the Teaching Resource Center.
Even though it is much more comfortable to spend most of your time with
people who speak your native language, seek out English-speaking roommates,
office partners, lab partners and friends or sign up for a "Conversation
Partner" through the International TA program at the TRC. If possible,
sign up for a pronunciation or oral communications course through the
English as a Second Language Program. The TRC training course, "Classroom
Communication for International Teaching Assistants," can help
you examine specific areas of weakness so that you can improve.
acknowledge on the first day of class that you and your students may
have difficulty understanding each other because English is not your
native language. Everyone will feel more comfortable. Ask your students
to let you know immediately when they don't understand. Tell them you
may sometimes need to ask them to repeat or rephrase what they have
- In class,
if you're not sure what a student has said, restate it to confirm your
understanding. Do not pretend to understand or try to answer an unclear
question. If students find you to be confident of your knowledge of
the material, well prepared for class, and interested in them, they
will overlook many of your language difficulties. ? Use the blackboard
or overhead projector regularly to write key words that may be misunderstood
and to emphasize their importance. Give your students verbal signals
to let them know what you are doing, or where you are in your organizational
plan as you lecture. Words such as "first," "next,"
or "an example of this" help students organize their notes
and their thinking along with yours.
- Ask your
students to comment on the course three or four weeks into the semester.
A short evaluation of the progress of the class gives you valuable information
about what students understand and what you can do to improve communication
while you still have time. Sample comment forms and individual help
are available in the Teaching Resource Center.
- Read other
useful tips in Althen, Manual for Foreign Teaching Assistants (1988),
available in the TRC.
How Can You Expand Students' Cultural Awareness?
ignorance about your country and international affairs in general may
surprise you. Partly because the United States is large, many Americans
are sadly ignorant of the rest of the world and may imply that the United
States is superior to other countries. Frequently unaware of the geography,
the politics, or even the levels of technical and cultural advancement
in other countries, most students eagerly want to learn about them. Help
educate them by answering questions and acting as a representative of
your country. Their prejudices against foreigners aren't related to you
personally; in fact, you can best overcome them by allowing students to
know you. Through their encounters with you, American students defeat
some stereotypes by getting to know a compassionate, intelligent person
who is not an American.
teaching skills is an ongoing process that many instructors find challenging
and rewarding. Although some of the demands made on international TAs
are different from those facing American TAs, others are similar. Thus
the Teaching Resource Center sponsors programs throughout the year to
respond to your general needs, as well as a special ITA training course
where you can examine teaching issues, practice techniques, and improve
your communication skills.
department, you can obtain help from your supervising faculty member and
experienced TAs. If you establish a reasonably friendly relationship with
your students, they can help you with the English language, especially
needed and welcome in the U.Va. community as a graduate student, beginning
scholar, instructor, and representative of another way of viewing the
world; you contribute to the University's educational system by sharing
a cooperative learning relationship with your students. While teaching
your discipline, you can eradicate stereotypes by acting as a well-educated,
thoughtful representative of your country. We hope you find your TA experience
at the University of Virginia positive and rewarding.
never believed good teaching is a natural gift, like good hand-eye coordination.
Nor am I persuaded it requires acting talents, comedy skills, or a personality
of extroversion. Instead, I have looked to models, mentors, written
sources, and taping of lectures to improve and develop my own classroom