First 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.
It's your first day of leading discussion section, and you're nervous about facing a classroom full of American kids. Will they understand your accent? Will you meet their expectations? What if they don't get where you're coming from?
I'm hoping that this three-part series will help you identify two main and interrelated areas of concern for international TAs: language proficiency issues and broader cultural issues. Let's work through these concerns so that you feel prepared to teach in a Stanford classroom.
Although some international TAs come from places where English is a dominant or even national language, let’s first consider those who arrive from countries where this is not the case. If you're worrying about your imperfect English, it can be hard to show up poised and confident. Below are some proven ways to address those proficiency fears.
Try adopting these strategies to shape how students perceive your English language abilities:
Ask for clarification. If a student asks a question and you don't understand it, perhaps you're simply not used to the phrasing. Try to restate the question to see if you understood it correctly. Sometimes, student questions aren't well formed and don't make much sense. Asking them to repeat or rephrase the question might help everyone in the room better understand the question being raised.
Help your students understand you better by using the board really well. Write neatly, label appropriately, and spell out any keywords that you know are hard for you to pronounce. Also, don't let imperfect spelling skills in English keep you from writing something on the board. Just as students do, all instructors make spelling mistakes sometimes. As a student formulates her question, write that question on the board. By doing so, you can verify that you understood the question correctly and buy some time to think about how to answer it fully. Another benefit to writing questions on the board is that it allows you to manage the questions of several students at the same time. Once you've collected the questions from students and written them on the board, you know roughly how much time you'll be able to proportion to each one.
Check for understanding by stopping periodically to have students summarize for you and the rest of the class the material you have just finished explaining.
Here are a few more recommendations from Ellen Sarkisian's book written for international TAs called Teaching American Students (2006):
Ask for accommodations. A good teacher knows how to pace her lesson and frame it in a register that students will be able to follow. Remember this as you ask your students to speak one at a time, to slow down when asking a question, or to phrase their comments in such a way that all are most likely to understand. Sarkisian writes, "The adjustments to be made should not rest with the teacher alone." Students must adjust, too.
Say the same thing a few different ways. This can help with errors in pronunciation or any jargon that might have found its way into your explanation.
Don't assume the advanced language proficiency of some students who sound articulate is correlated with knowledge of the subject. "Ask students to be specific if they are speaking in generalities; steer speakers whose points are tangential; redirect the focus of the discussion when their comments are irrelevant," writes Sarkisian.
For students who complain that their TA "doesn't speak English," it is often a matter of students mistaking language abilities for something else. We shouldn't be shy about acknowledging that all Stanford TAs must pass a strict English proficiency exam administered by the Language Center before qualifying to teach, so Stanford international TAs all have a solid command of the English language. They why would students think you can't speak English?
Students may not be accustomed to hearing an accent. In other words, they may believe there’s a language barrier, but really it results from a lack of consciousness on the part of the students.
The material itself may resist easy comprehension. In this case, the difficulty of learning new and challenging vocabulary may be misattributed to your accent.
As in the case of many new TAs, your basic teaching skills may not be fully developed. For example, you may not use the board well, you may forget to avoid or at least define jargon, or you may forget to point out key words and ideas.
Remember, as a non-native English speaker, sure it's possible that both you and your students might occasionally get tripped up by your English, but just take a breath and rest assured that you do have all the knowledge and skills you need to be an effective communicator.
What are some ways that you've dealt with perceived or real langauge barriers in the classroom?
Check out this video of one international student putting these and other strategies to use.
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.