Third in a three-part series for international TAs that bridges outside research with TA experience at Stanford to provide you with suggestions for overcoming concerns about language proficiency and cultural matters in U.S. classrooms. In Part 1, we looked at concerns over English proficiency and ways to address those concerns. In Part 2, we heard from two Stanford TAs about their experience and advice regarding cultural differences in the classroom.
Alice Allafort, a French TA who shared her experiences with this series in Part 2, says despite the cultural and linguistic differences they face, international TAs have some advantages over the average TA. For example, by opening up on the first day of class about her background and why certain phrases may come across as strange, she diffuses the tension in the room and uses it as an effective first-day icebreaker.
"It shows them that you aren't this person that they can’t relate to. Everyone will make mistakes and it’s ok. It’s a way to be more relatable than the average TA," says Allafort.
Even mispronunciations or gaps in vocabulary can prove beneficial to teaching, because it can uncover an expert's blind spot. Allafort, a physicist, explains: "I can say the technical terms very well, but once I had to explain something in geometry, and I haven’t done that in a while." Sometimes a non-native English speaker can have an edge over TAs who are native speakers because they tend to be more deliberate about word choice and more careful about clarifying what they mean.
An international TA will be quicker to come up with a jargon-free explanation, because she may simply not know the jargon in English. In Alice's example, she needed to tell a student about equilateral triangle. Alice told her students, “I’m not sure what's the right word. What I mean is 'the three sides are equal.'" Admitting that you’re not sure is something you’ll always have to do in teaching, and being an international TA can sometimes give you all the reason you need to come clean.
Making such admissions can increase student participation in the class, because it lowers the stakes for making mistakes. Allafort invites students to question her, saying “It’s okay to tell me if I need to speak more slowly, or please re-explain something. It’s okay if it’s about the physics, but it’s even more okay if it’s about my accent, because I want to share with you."
Some of the concerns and strategies raised in this series are shared by many "native" TAs as well. Remember that TAs from all origins form part of a shared continuum of teaching practice, from novice to expert, that may have a stronger influence on teaching success than anything else. For these reasons, I encourage all TAs to seek out resources for improved teaching and learning.
What are some of the benefits you've noticed about being and international TA?
Teaching American Students: A Guide for International Faculty and Teaching Assistants in Colleges and Universities by Ellen Sarkisian (Harvard University Press, 2006)
Anna Castillo is a PhD candidate in Iberian and Latin American Cultures.