4 International Teaching Assistants

Cultural Differences in the Classroom

Adapted with permission from Unruh, 1986

Cultural differences in teaching methods and appropriate conduct for students and teachers create challenges for the International Teaching Assistant (ITA) beyond those encountered by the American TA. In all countries, teachers are respected as authority figures, but the way an authority figure behaves differs from country to country. At American universities, teachers may expect more independent work from students than do teachers in many other cultures. There is a difference in emphasis on how much teachers tell their students and how much they encourage students to learn on their own. These differences affect the kind of homework, the type and extent of classroom discussion, and the style of papers and examinations that teachers and students expect. Reconciling these expectations with experiences at home is an example of the additional challenges faced by ITAs.

Teacher and student behavior in the classroom is also culturally influenced. There are subtle distinctions in the form and quality of posture and body movements, spacing and timing, eye contact, smile, and head nod. If all teachers in your country sit tall and straight behind their desks, without looking, smiling, or nodding at individual students, you will tend to do the same. Whether you look or smile at your students while teaching, use few or many gestures, stand or sit behind a podium or desk affects how your students perceive you as a teacher and how effectively they learn. We tend to ignore these aspects of teaching, and tend to overlook how profoundly these actions affect our liking and respect for one another and influence the quality and quantity of teaching and learning that occurs in the classroom. Following are some suggestions for improving the social relationships of ITAs with their students. (Adapted with permission: Mahdi, et. al., American Sociological Association, 1987)

Teaching Tips for International TAs

Adapted from Mahdi, Useem, and Ewens, American Sociological Association, 1987

Handle Anxieties. Anxieties are common among international students newly appointed to assist in teaching. After all, these feelings of uncertainty are commonly felt even by native graduate TAs who are experiencing less general culture shock. For instance, one may feel uneasy about going into a class whose students speak another language and have a different culture. The best one can do in this situation is to attempt to overcome these fears and try to build up one’s own natural self-confidence. Remember that you are not the only one who is going to face this situation. Many others have had this experience and have actually come out better for it!

International is beautiful. When you enter the classroom, consider yourself a graduate assistant and not a “foreign graduate assistant.” While it is important to introduce your national, educational, and cultural background, it is not wise, in many cases, to act as a foreigner. Thus, one should not present oneself in a way that leads students to believe that you are “handicapped” or “different,” which may, therefore, elicit a sense of pity from the students and impair your rapport with the class. By all means, be yourself, but it is often not constructive to give your students the impression that you are less than a capable and competent teacher because you are an international student. Try to meet the expectations of the course to the best of your ability, but let your nationality or cultural distinctiveness work for you rather than against you.

Ignore student prejudices. Try to suspend your biases, prejudices, and stereotypes, if you have any, about American undergraduate students. While racist and sexist views can, unfortunately, surface among American students, you should not assume that all share these views. Interaction formed on the basis of stereotypes, on your part or on the part of your students, can lead to a great deal of misunderstanding, suspicion, apprehension, and conflict.

Talk to friends. In handling discussion, grading exams, reading papers, making tests, designing classroom activities, and so on, you may encounter some difficulties. In these situations, consult other TAs or friends. Instead of hiding problems, you should try to resolve them as soon as possible. It is wisest to discuss the problem first with your peers and colleagues in a “give-and-take” situation. Cooperation and consultation are important aspects of teaching. If the problem is not solved and there is a need for further cooperation, you should then discuss the issue with the professor with whom you are working. It is not wise to hide issues and problems from the professor. It is easier and more constructive to have the instructor involved and informed about the problems from the beginning — not only because the professor may be helpful, but also because problems may come to the surface in a way that could be disruptive to the whole course.

Anticipate potential student problems. If you are assigned to the task of running a discussion or dealing with students directly, the following guidelines may help you avoid potential problems.

Provide the student with a clear outline. If you are assigned to run a discussion or give a lecture, you may find it helpful to develop a systematic outline of your lecture or the main issues and questions to be discussed. Once you have done this, try to organize the outline as clearly, neatly, and summarily as possible, because then you can put this on the chalkboard or distribute it as a handout in class. When you have an outline on the board, the direction of your discussion will be more clearly organized. When the headings are available on the board, and the connections are established in charts or formulas, there is less risk of going off on tangents. Furthermore, since the information is sitting clearly in front of the class, there is less of a chance of allowing the critical and challenging questions of students to loosen your control over the learning process. For example, having this outline prevents the unnecessary search into your notes and eliminates some of the conditions which might lead to a breakdown of the class discussion.

Use examples from everyday life. When lecturing or leading discussions, try to make your arguments as concrete as possible by using examples from everyday life. However, since you are an international student, you may have a tendency to use more examples from your own culture. This is fine as long as you realize the cultural heterogeneity of the class and provide the students with enough background to understand your examples. This advice is especially important when you use foreign jokes, slang, and expressions. Also remember that the use of too many examples from one specific foreign culture may make the students bored and disinterested. Try to diversify your examples and expand the scope of your topics of discussion.

Be prepared for complaints. If you disagree with testing or grading procedures set by the professor and cannot convince her or him to change them, then make it subtly clear to students that the evaluation framework has been constructed solely by the professor. Many times, if a test is difficult and the students are doing poorly, some may try to find an external factor to blame. Since you are an international student, you have a good chance of being that external factor. Statements like, “Foreign students should not grade the test,” “Foreign students are not capable of testing my ability,” or, “He does not know how to speak; how does he have a right to judge my paper?” are not uncommon.

Be aware of difficult vocabulary. To minimize language difficulties, avoid using words or terms that are hard to pronounce. If you are unsure of a pronunciation, check with the professor or a peer before class. Writing the word on the board will ensure that students understand your meaning. Sometimes when students are asking questions or making comments, they may use words with which you are not familiar. As long as you can get a correct interpretation of what is being asked or said, you do not have to worry about deciphering it. However, if you are not sure of the meaning of what is said, do not hesitate to ask for further clarification or the specific meaning of the term. At times, you may use a word in a specific way and feel that the students do not understand your point because of the specific meaning you have attached to a term. Words may have different meanings in different contexts, some of which you may be unaware. In these situations, do not insist on the only meaning you know. Do not take the students’ questions on the matter as an attack on your knowledge and teaching competency. Try to be open-minded and attempt to establish a dialogue in exploring different meanings of the term and aspects of the issue. Admitting your uncertainty can demonstrate openness and a willingness to learn from students.

Grade papers and tests carefully. When you are assigned to the task of grading papers or exams, make sure your comments and criticisms are well-structured and accurately organized. Some students look for every opportunity to increase their grades, and may seize upon your grammatical mistakes to embarrass you into changing their grade. Make sure everything you write for students and every handout you give them is structurally checked in advance and does not contain any grammatical flaws.

Improve interpersonal relations. In many cultures, less emphasis is placed on interpersonal relations between teachers and students. Some things which can be done to strengthen social relations with students are the following:

  • Invite members of the section to stay after class to discuss points made in class rather than leaving immediately after class.
  • Select one or two thoughtful members of the section, and after class say, “Now let’s talk about what I was trying to get at in the section,” or, “What could I have done differently?” or, “What did you get out of it?” Try to get an informal discussion going and solicit feedback on your performance.
  • In order to find out more about class members, construct a brief biographical questionnaire and have each member of the class fill it out. For example, you might ask, “What brought you to the class?” or “What is your background?” etc.

International TA Support Services

Academic Spoken English

The Academic Spoken English Program (Yon Hall, Room 314, 352-392-3286) offers two credit-bearing courses in addition to a fee-based oral-proficiency in English class.  These courses are intended for international graduate students who wish to enhance their oral English skills to be competent and confident teachers and participate fully in graduate research and studies.  The credit-bearing EAP courses do not count toward a graduate degree but are eligible for a fee waiver.  In EAP 5836, TAs are videotaped in their class or lab and receive individual feedback as well as group instruction to develop their language, cultural awareness, as well as classroom communication skills.  Consult the ASE homepage for additional information.

The University of Florida International Center (UFIC)

The International Center, located at 170 Hub, provides a variety of services for the more than 5,000 international students, representing over 130 countries, enrolled at the University of Florida in both undergraduate and graduate programs. The center’s mission is “to enhance the educational experience of UF’s students, faculty, and staff by promoting a global perspective.”

International Student Services (ISS) and Exchange Visitor Services (EVS) are two separate units within the International Center. Operating under Academic Affairs, these offices provide services to international students (ISS), faculty and scholars (EVS), and their dependents. The International Center assists the entire University community with immigration affairs. The following services are provided: immigration matters, insurance requirements, orientation, academic counseling, liaison with faculty and staff, emergency assistance, liaison with non-university agencies, community relations, student activities, and educational programs. The center also provides a handbook for international students that is available for download on their website. For more information, call (352) 392-5323, or visit the International Center website.

Useful Resources for International TAs

Ashavskaya, Edaterina. “International teaching assistants’ experiences in the U.S. classrooms: Implications for practice. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning,” vol. 15, April 2015, pp. 56-69.

Madden, C. G., & Myers C. L. (Eds.). (1994). Discourse and performance of international teaching assistants. Alexandria, VA: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

Nyquist, J. D., Abbot, R. D., Wulff, D.H., & Sprague, J. (Eds.). (1991). Preparing the professoriate of tomorrow to teach: Selected reading in TA training. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt.

Pica, T., Barnes, G. A., & Finger, A. G. (1990). Teaching matters: Skills and strategies for international teaching assistants. New York: Newbury House.

Sarkisian, E., & Maurer, V. (1998). International TA training and beyond: Out of the program and into the classroom. In M. Marincovitch, J. Prostko, & F. Stout (Eds.), The professional development of graduate teaching assistants. Bolton, MA: Anker.

Smith, J., Meyers, C. M., & Burkhalter, A. J. (1992). Communicate: Strategies for international teaching assistants. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Regents/Prentice Hall.

Spears, R. A. (2000). NTC’s American idioms dictionary: The most practical reference for the everyday expressions of contemporary American English (3rd ed.). Chicago: NTC.

Webb, Nathan G. & Barrett, Laura Obrycki. Student views of instructor-student rapport in the college classroom. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, vol.14, no. 2, May 2014, pp. 15-28.


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UF TA Handbook by John Jordi; Genavie Cueman; and Jennifer K. Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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