International Teaching Assistants Guide
by Stacey Kizer, former CFT Program Coordinator
- Characteristics of the U.S. classroom
- Things to know about Vanderbilt
- TA duties & responsibilities
- TA identity in the classroom
- Important teaching skills
- Office hours
- Additional resources
Characteristics of the U.S. classroom
The U.S. university system
The U.S. university system commonly consists of four years of study at a post-secondary institution. These years of study are at the ‘undergraduate’ level and are commonly called freshman, sophomore, junior and senior years, though you might sometimes hear freshman referred to as ‘first years.”
In the U.S., university students may come from very different backgrounds and may take courses for very different reasons. In some countries, university students take courses only within their chosen major. In the U.S., however, universities value a liberal arts tradition that emphasizes study across many disciplines. Students therefore take courses in a variety of disciplines to fulfill general education requirements in addition to taking courses within their major. Because of their varied backgrounds and varied reasons for taking a course, differences among students can be pronounced, especially in introductory courses.
Typical high school preparation
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects the privacy of students’ academic records. Grades and other academic information are to be given to individual students only, and they alone can approve the sharing of their academic information with third parties. All incoming students are given the opportunity to sign a release form allowing Vanderbilt to share their academic information with their parents or legal guardians. A TA cannot discuss a student’s grades with that student’s parents without first confirming that the student has signed the release. Please note that sending grades to students via email is not considered secure enough for FERPA. TA’s should make students aware of this and request permission to send grades by email. If the students grant the TA permission to send grades via email, then the TA may do so. Another option is to post grades to Blackboard, which is considered more secure than email.
General characteristics of the U.S. classroom
Although there are many differences in social, economic, and educational levels in the U.S., there is a theme of equality that runs through social relationships. The notion of equality leads students to be quite informal in their general behaviors and relationships with others.
The informality of dress, posture, and speech, especially the common use of the first name, can be shocking to some international students and scholars. It is not uncommon for students to use slang in the classroom, or as a part of their ordinary conversations with instructors or other students. This list can help you understand some of the common slang you might hear your students using. There is also a vernacular that is specific to Vanderbilt that might be helpful to know.
Demographics of Vanderbilt students
|The following scenario illustrates an honor violation you might encounter as a T.A..
1. You’ve recently finished grading your students’ first assignments, and you notice that two of them are identical except for formatting. Your students were encouraged to work together on the non-graded homework, but they were to do their own work on the graded assignment. What should you do?
2. Let the two students know that it looks like they have collaborated inappropriately on the assignment, and ask them to redo the assignment.
3. Ask each student to meet with you individually. Show each student his assignment and ask him to explain himself.
4. Report both students to the Vanderbilt Undergraduate Honor Council, without first contacting the students.
Give each student a 0 on the assignment.
When choosing the best response, consider:
Honor System at Vanderbilt
All Vanderbilt students are governed by the Honor System of Vanderbilt University. If an instructor believes a student has violated the Honor System, then the instructor is obligated to either issue a warning to the student or report the violation to the Honor Council. Instructors are not allowed to punish students themselves. Syllabi and other course communications should make clear to students how the Honor System applies in a particular course. See the Undergraduate Honor Council web site for sample syllabi statement and other advice on this topic.
Resources for students in distress
TA duties and responsibilities
- Reinforcing basic lecture material through discussion sessions, introductory lectures, or lab sessions
- Providing exam review assistance
- Holding office hours
- Directing students to additional resources
- Answering questions
- Assessing student work
- Maintaining clear and complete records
TAs are usually under the direct supervision of the professor of record for the course in which the TA is assigned. It’s important to think carefully about the role you’re being asked to perform and to clarify any questions you have with the professor of record. You can use this expanded list: Questions TAs Might Ask Their Supervisors as a basis to clarify your roles and responsibilities with the professor you’re working with before the course begins, but you might start with:
- What are the specific tasks you wish me to undertake?
- Do you want me to attend the lectures in the course?
- Are there solutions for the problems (or specific issues to look for in grading papers) or will I be expected to generate them myself?
- Which specific dates on the course schedule affect me and how much time should I plan in order to perform my duties?
“Be confident. You must trust yourself and understand that language is only a tool to communicate. Your language can be bad but if your answer is helpful, the students are willing to listen to you. Be humble. Don’t feel ashamed if you did not completely understand a conversation with your students. Ask your students for clarification.
Be active. If students do not come to ask you during the class, go to ask them. Before class, talk to them about what’s new this week. After class, talk to them about how they about feel the class. You have to get feedback in order to improve your work. Talk more, you will gain more.”
– ITA, Physics & Astronomy
TA identity in the classroom
Talking about your command of English
- When speaking, make eye contact with students in the class (which is not a norm in every culture). By doing so, you will be able to discern who looks confused and address questions as they arise.
- Face students while speaking. It can be difficult to remember to turn around – especially in the case of blackboard work – but you might get into the habit of writing the information on the board first, and then turning around and speaking.
- Use lots of demonstrations, props, and illustrations to supplement instruction.
- Write key words on blackboard/overhead/PowerPoint, particularly when your pronunciation of the word is unclear. Hand-outs prepared ahead of time can help students follow instruction.
Maintaining proper boundaries
Sexual harassment is any unwanted, unsolicited, or undesired attention of a sexual nature and is a violation of federal law. The Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action, and Disability Services Department (EAD) provides resources for victims of sexual harassment and is responsible for investigating claims of sexual harassment at Vanderbilt.
Consensual sexual relationships are prohibited between a student and any TA who teaches that student. Since a TA is in a position of power over a student, any relationship would either be a conflict of interest or give the impression of a conflict of interest. To avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, TAs are advised to keep their office doors open when consulting with students.
Important teaching skills
Speaking with confidence
- Remember that the students want you to do well. They have chosen to come to your class to learn and they want you to be successful.
- Remember to try and conceal any signs of nervousness or anxiety. Much of the nervousness you feel is not usually seen by others.
- Concentrate on your topic. Come to class prepared with an outline of the lecture. This should not be a written speech, but an outline that you can freely speak from rather than read from.
- Think positively instead of focusing on your fear. Positive thinking is a step in overcoming nervousness.
- Make strong eye contact with your students and use good body language to convey your confidence.
Asking & answering questions
- I wonder if you could tell me….(I was wondering if you….)
- I’d like to know….
- Could you tell me more about….?
- Would you mind telling me more about….?
- I’d like to know more about….
- Something else I was wondering about was….
- Sorry, that’s not really what I mean. What I’d like to know is…
“The biggest challenge for a new ITA, in my opinion, is understanding on the students’ questions, especially those raised during you are giving a lecture. American students usually speak fast and use a lot of ‘new’ words (which are very common in their daily life but you may not be familiar). That can cause you to be confused about what they are asking and what they expect you to answer.
I suggest all new ITAs, when doing self-introductions, put an emphasis on the language problem, to tell the students ‘I am still learning a new language’, and each time you don’t understand a student’s question, try to rephrase the question using your own understanding and your own words, and ask them whether it is what they intend to ask, instead of just asking them to repeat the question.”
– ITA, Physics & Astronomy
- Well, let me see…
- Well now…
- Oh, let me think for a moment….
- That’s a very interesting question.
- I’m not sure. I’ll have to check…
- I’m not really sure.
- I can’t answer that one right now.
- I’m sorry, I really don’t know.
- Let me get back to you (on that one).
- That’s something I’d rather not talk about just now.
- I wonder if you’d hold that question for later?
- Let’s go back to _____
- To get back to our initial question, …
- I’m sorry, but would you mind repeating that?
- Excuse me, but I didn’t quite follow that.
- Would you say that again in a different way?
- Are you asking me to explain ______?
- Academic Spoken English. This search engine helps you to look up phrases used in spoken academic English based on the wording, the speaker, or the type of transcript involved.
“I ask the professor that I am working for to allow me to give at least one lecture as early as possible in the semester. This allows me to prove my competence to students, and they then develop the confidence to consult with me. In this way I have been able to engage in intellectual discussions with some of the best and brightest students in my field, and I have formed some enduring relationships. This strategy has also brought in some really good evaluations.”
– ITA, Political Science
Make the student feel welcome by using eye contact, smiling, gesturing toward a chair, and appearing eager. As you get to know students, your openers can be adjusted to their personalities.
- Hello. Would you like to see me?
- Hi, _____ (name). Come in and have a seat.
- Hi, _____ (name). Have a seat. What can I do for you?
Briefly engage in chitchat to help the student feel welcome and comfortable. But generally, this type of exchange is brief and you may need to direct students to the point of their visit. Usually, it is best not to assume that you know why the student has come to see you unless an appointment was set up for a specific purpose.
- So, what are you here to talk about?
- Okay, let’s see what you’ve got.
- Do you want to talk about the homework?
- Let’s deal with that question first.
- There’s a lot to go over. Let’s get started, okay?
- You wanted to know about ___. Do you want me to talk about the basics?
- Would you like to try working through a problem? Would that help?
Sometimes students want to question a grade you have assigned. Or a disagreement might arise when a student cannot solve a problem and feels frustrated by the course material. Control these situations by acknowledging the student’s viewpoint while maintaining your position. Use polite phrases so that “no” doesn’t sound so strong. Present good reasons for your decision so the student will understand your point of view. If the disagreement is serious, or the problem cannot be resolved, it may be best to terminate the meeting. Reschedule for a later time when the student has had a chance to think about what the two of you have discussed. Remain calm, even if the student is angry or begins to cry. Politely bring the meeting to a close.
- I can see your point, but …
- Yes, but on the other hand …
- I really wouldn’t put it that way, because …
- I’m not sure why you chose …
- I think you’ve missed one important fact, which is …
- I know this isn’t what you want to hear, but …
- I’m sorry you don’t accept my decision, but I have to stand by it.
- Okay, let’s stop for now. If you still feel this way in a couple of days, we can talk again.
Close the meeting by guiding the discussion to an end.
- Do you think we’ve covered everything?
- Why don’t you look it over and come back next week if you have questions?
- Let me know if you need any more help.
- I’m here twice a week, so you can come back on _____.
- Think about it for a day or so; then we’ll talk again.
- Okay, then. So I’ll see you in class.
- Maybe if you have any other questions about the test, you can come see me next week.
- Using Office Hours Effectively. This article provides more information about why students will visit you during office hours and read some tips for interacting with students.
In your department:
- Talk to experienced TAs in your field of study. They can be great sources for advice about teaching. You can talk with American or international TAs to get practical help with many of your questions about teaching. Most will be glad to help because they remember what it was like to teach for the first time.
- Observe others who are teaching the same or similar subject as you are. Ask another TA or professor if you can attend their class for several days. Take notes on how they present the material, deal with student questions and use visual aids. Model the good teaching practices that you observe.
- Ask questions of your supervising professor. Prepare your specific questions in advance and make an appointment to see your professor. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Even your professor was a beginning teacher at some point in time.
- International Student and Scholar Services has a range of programs and services for international faculty, students, and families.
- The Vanderbilt English Language Center offers the Effective Teaching Strategies for International Faculty Program that helps faculty who have a first language other than English hone their instructional skills for the US university classroom context.
- Center for Teaching consultants work individually with faculty and teaching assistants on any issue related to teaching – from preparing to teach your first class in the United States to applying recent research on learning to your classroom. To arrange an appointment with a consultant, contact us, call (615) 322-7290, or visit us at 1114 19th Avenue South, 3rd Floor.
- The Center for Global Education at UCLA has developed a website describing innovative programs to support international students.
- Althen, G. (2003). American Ways , 2nd ed. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.
- Chaudron, C and Richards, JC. (1986). The Effect of Discourse Markers on the Comprehension of Lectures. Applied Linguistics 7: 113-127.
- Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning (1993). Teaching in America (VIDEO). Harvard University.
- Eland, A. (2001). Intersection of Academics and Culture: The Academic Experience of International Graduate Students (Doctoral dissertation). University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN. Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Database.
- Fitch, F. and Morgan, S.E. (2003). “Not a Lick of English:” Constructing the ITA Identity through Student Narratives. Communication Education 52: 297-310.
- LeGros, N. and Faez, F. (2012). The Intersection Between Intercultural Competence and Teaching Behaviors: A Case of International Teaching Assistants. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching 23: 7-31.
- Neuliep, J.W. (1997). A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Teacher Immediacy in American and Japanese College Classrooms. Communication Research 24: 431-451.
- Sarkisian, E. (1997). Teaching American Students , Rev. ed. Cambridge: Harvard.
- Pica, T., G. Barnes, A. Finger. (1990). Teaching Matters: Skills and Strategies for International Teaching Assistants. Newbury House Publishers. Ch. 4.
- Teven, J.J. and Hanson, T.L. (2004) The Impact of Teacher Immediacy and Perceived Caring on Teacher Competence and Trustworthiness. Communication Quarterly 52: 39-53.
- Tyler, A. (1992). Discourse Structure and the Perception of Incoherence in International Teaching Assistants’ Spoken Discourse. TESOL Quarterly 26: 713-729.
- Wennerstrom, A. (1989). Techniques for Teachers: A Guide for Nonnative Speakers of English. The University of Michigan Press. pp. 129-145.]
- Williams, J. (1992). Planning, Discourse Marking, and the Comprehensibility of International Teaching Assistants. TESOL Quarterly 26: 693-711.