Second 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.
Other challenges that you might face as an international TA are more broadly cultural in nature. For help with these issues, I spoke with two Stanford TAs who shared some advice for their fellow international TAs.
Kai Zang, liaison to the Center for Teaching and Learning for the department of Electrical Engineering, is a fourth-year PhD candidate from China. He says, "Communication was the biggest barrier for me, but for many others the cultural barrier is what is most challenging."
Kai was surprised by how freely American students probe their instructors for details. "In China, a TA is an authority and cannot be publicly challenged. Perhaps some details might be negotiated in private, but in the U.S., you can challenge at any time."
He says some of his fellow international colleagues have also remarked on the behavior of U.S. TAs, noting that their laid-back communication style with students would be considered unprofessional in their home countries. They say things like, "The TA makes too many jokes and looks more like the students' friend than their instructor."
While practice is the best way to improve, says Kai, there are a few ways to prepare before stepping into a U.S. classroom. Kai watched classes online through MOOCs, which familiarized him with some of the U.S. classroom norms. He also recommends speaking with more experienced TAs in your department who might have suggestions.
In the book Teaching American Students, Ellen Sarkisian strongly recommends getting the students on your side from the very beginning. Start the first class by writing your name and pronouncing it several times if it’s not an easy name for the students to catch. Also, tell the students what your native language is, so they can stop wondering. Let them know you are aware of your accent (if you have one) and that you want them to stop you if they don't understand something. As I said in Part 1, bringing down that perceived language barrier for U.S. students can help a lot.
Then, writes Sarkisian, ask them to embrace the chance to learn through the eyes of a foreigner.
Above all, Kai reports that the best preparation for him was simply knowing the course content very well before teaching it to students. That way, he was able to focus his energy on how best to communicate rather than on learning the material just in time.
Alice Allafort, winner of the Paul H. Kirkpatrick award for her talent and commitment to the teaching of physics, is a seventh-year PhD candidate from France. She mentions several additional challenges that she has faced as an international TA:
Having international students in your class can compound cultural misunderstandings. "Once, I had a student in her first year in the U.S. She came from another country that spoke English, but it was still different culturally." When Alice challenged her class to design a pizza stand that would limit the amount of heat lost with time, the student asked, "What is a pizza stand?" She had never been into a pizza restaurant. What this shows is that even concrete examples can turn abstract when culture gets involved.
One big difference between her French undergraduate institution and Stanford is teacher evaluations. Reports Allafort, "In France, there is no institutional way of giving feedback to the instructor. Learning issues were always believed to be on the part of the student, and not assumed to be instruction related. If you don’t understand, it’s on you. You haven’t worked hard enough."
Allafort's perspective changed the first time she was asked to evaluate an instructor. "It made me think about what he was doing well, what he didn’t do well, and what would I do in his position? I learned I have to put myself in their shoes."
When TAing for the first time at Stanford, she noticed her students hadn't done their problem sets correctly. "I remember being frustrated," she says. "You are just out of lecture. How come you can’t get it? I wasn’t as tactful as I would have liked to be because my English wasn’t so good," she admits. The end-of-quarter evaluations she received were telling.
Students reported, “She was mean,” and, “She seemed to be getting angry at us if we didn’t get it.” Allafort says she wasn't angry but had simply put the blame on them, as per French university customs. "That changed my perspective when I taught again afterwards."
Allafort recommends seeking mid-quarter feedback so you can react before it’s too late. Also, she says, the CTL consultants who discuss that feedback are a lot more diplomatic than some undergrads.
Talking with fellow French TAs at Stanford also helped. They could help her make sense of some of the cultural disjunctures in her own classroom because they had shared experiences.
In many cultures, a good instructor is one who does not solicit or answer a lot of questions. In the U.S. most students expect to be able to question the instructor, even challenge him. Make sure you leave room for students to speak up.
In some places, the instructor is supposed to be the expert and to give a lecture accordingly. Here at Stanford, understand that the belief is that students learn more when they are actively involved in class.
Remember that just as you may not want to serve as an American's sole representative of your home country or culture, avoid making assumptions about your students' backgrounds, including their sexual orientation, politics, ethnicity, and religious views.
U.S. students tend to value casual informality and enthusiasm from instructors nearly as much as their knowledge about the subject, so take it easy.
Do you have any stories about cultural differences in your classroom? Share them in a comment below.
Coming up: Part 3 will discuss the potential advantages of being an international TA.
Teaching American Students: A Guide for International Faculty and Teaching Assistants in Colleges and Universities by Ellen Sarkisian (Harvard University Press, 2006)
Become familiar with Stanford course evaluations so you know what criteria will be used to evaluate your teaching.
Get a feel for how instructors teach in the U.S. by watching some online courses, such as those offered by Coursera.
Anna Castillo is a PhD candidate in Latin American Literatures and Cultures.