Teaching issues for consideration for international TAs
Understand your students
North American students are rather informal. They may call you by your first name. If you wish to be called differently, make sure to let them know the name you prefer on the first day of class. You may also want to help them to pronounce your name. They are less likely to approach you if they cannot say your name.
Get familiar with U.S. academic culture
If you have never taught in a North American university, become familiar with the classroom culture. You can achieve this by attending a class to observe the teaching methods, the students, and their interaction with the instructor or by talking with more experienced international TAs about their insights and strategies. College students in the U.S. usually are at different levels in terms of their academic background. This is because the U.S. does not have a standardized curriculum in K-12 education. Do not make assumptions that students have similar knowledge when they enter the course.
Try to be in the classroom a few minutes early and chat with students to build rapport. Campus events, weather, and sports are good topics to open up the conversation. Of course, football is a topic you can always talk about here at Penn State.
Acknowledge language barriers, but do not apologize
Do not apologize for the fact that your English is not native-like. You can talk to your students about where you come from, share cultural facts with them, and your experiences as a student in your country. If you think language might be an issue for communicating with your students, let them know that you will do your best to make sure you understand them and vice versa. Also let them know that they cannot use your accent as an excuse for not learning or doing poorly. They will be more responsible for understanding your lectures and materials. This may relieve the anxiety from them and from you.
Promote open communication in your classroom
Give students the opportunity to politely let you know if they do not understand you, and tell them you also might ask them to repeat a word or phrase. Do not ignore students’ questions. Confirm your understanding of a student’s comment or question by repeating what they have said. Then phrase it in another way and ask if that is a correct representation of the student’s comments. If you don’t know the answer, let them know that you will find it for them. If necessary, write your main points and any course-related vocabulary on the board at the beginning of class and as the words come up during discussion. Also watch for nonverbal communication behaviors involving speed of speech, volume and tone of voice, eye contact, facial expressions, and head and hand movements.
Let your students know that you are listening to them and are willing to change or adapt the course to help them learn. Have your students complete an informal midterm evaluation of the course to identify their concerns. This will allow you to find out about student perspectives on the course and make appropriate changes, address misunderstandings, or clarify expectations or grading policy before the second half of the semester.
Provide positive feedback
When responding to students’ assignment submissions or answers in class, it’s usually a good idea to include some positive feedback - say what is right or working well about the student’s submission or answer, then use constructive criticism to suggest specific areas that could be improved.
Minimize your stress level
The day before you teach, go and find the classroom in which you will be teaching. Prepare for your classes; rehearse the night before to take some of the anxiety away. If at all possible, find another TA and do a dry-run of your first class together. At University Park, the registrar also provides photo previews of general purpose classrooms.
Organize your time well
Set a schedule for teaching-related duties. Preparing for classes, grading exams, and meeting with students can take a lot of your time if you do not carefully organize your schedule. Remember that you also are a student and as such you have to do your own work as well.
Design your class to allow for interaction
Students tend to appreciate classroom environments that are interactive. So you might want to work on developing activities that involve teamwork, class discussions, and role-plays. But it’s important to use these activities to promote students’ learning, not just for entertainment. You do not have to reinvent the wheel for developing new materials; talk to other TAs or professors in your department who have already taught your course or the specific topic you would like to introduce. They might have some good ideas or activities you could use, adapted to the needs of your course or students. After teaching, you might also want to save your lesson plans and activities. Keep notes of things that have worked or not, and write up possible suggestions for future improvements.
Save for the future
Save SRTEs. Start collecting your SRTEs right from the start because, sooner rather than later, when you will be on the job market, you will be asked to provide a summary of your SRTEs. This will save you a lot of time!