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An International Perspective

This article was originally published in the Spring 2003 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, Teaching Forum.

by Derek Bruff

Last spring, Nikolaos Galatos was awarded the Vanderbilt Mathematics Department B. F. Bryant Prize for Excellence in Teaching for outstanding teaching by a mathematics graduate student. Next year, Mr. Galatos will hold a postdoctoral research position at the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. Mr. Galatos is from Greece, and we spoke to him about the ways in which he overcame linguistic and cultural differences in his teaching.

What types of differences between you and your students did you encounter in your teaching?

Language was a challenge not only for me, but also for my students. I could express mathematics reasonably well in English, but my general English ability was lacking. My students were fluent in English, of course, but they had trouble expressing mathematical concepts.

Also, I found that compared to Greek students, American students are more demanding of their teachers. They demand that you explain things correctly and that you really care about them. In Europe, the instructor’s job is to present the material, not to make sure it gets across to the students.

Another difference is that I think Greeks tend to philosophize more, spending time over discussions that seem of no practical use, but also trying to get a deep understanding of some topic. It’s not necessarily an entertaining approach. It takes some mental effort. Americans tend to have more fast-food thinking, wanting more immediate results and more action. It’s practical and more about getting things done.

The Greek approach to teaching is not one that you would be able to implement here. You would completely lose all the students. It’s easier in Greece on the instructor and easier here for the students. However, I didn’t want to make it that easy for my students. I wanted them to start thinking on a deeper level.

How did you overcome these differences?

One of the first things I did was to simplify my speech. I find that even in my native language, I tend to speak in a more complicated fashion than the average speaker does. I also had to completely restructure the way I thought about presenting material. With American students, it’s important to start with basic examples and try to generalize, instead of giving the general idea in the first place and working from there.

Motivating students was another challenge. Since the Greek educational system stresses proofs and understanding rather than computation starting in elementary school, you can take for granted that Greek university students will pay attention to proofs. With American students, you really have to lure them into thinking about proofs. I avoid using the word “proof” or any other formal mathematical language. I use lots of pictures and graphs. I might write something on the board that seems to be obviously true, but actually isn’t. The students start doubting what they know. They start understanding why we need proofs and why we need to think about things more than we do. I find that if I put in the effort, they do get interested in these kinds of questions.

During my first year at Vanderbilt, the mathematics department assigned me two teaching mentors. One was Greek, and the other grew up in the States. Observing my Greek mentor teaching was like watching myself, making it easy to see what part of the Greek teaching style worked well here. My other mentor provided a helpful example of an American teaching style. These experiences were important as I learned to teach here in the States.

When I began teaching, I felt guilty for being there. Not only did my students have a green and inexperienced TA teaching their class, but he was from another country and not a native speaker. However, the students seemed to like that they had a teacher who was in some sense different. I made an effort to really try to identify with them, to see their way of thinking and adjust to that, and I think most of them appreciated it.

From: Teaching Forum 5:2 Spring 2003 CFT Newsletter