Tips for International TAs

Because students and TAs come from a variety of backgrounds and have a variety of standards and expectations, it is important to decide before your first class about what your expectations will be and what kind of classroom atmosphere you hope to foster. These choices are up to you and will be dependent upon what makes you comfortable in the classroom while providing for the best educational experiences for your students. Only you can decide what you believe will impact your students’ education, what translates (for you) to disrespectful behavior, etc. You will need to make clear to your students, however, what expectations you have for them so they are able to meet them.

Questions you might want to address regarding what you will do:

  • How will you dress? Formally, informally, or a mix of both?
  • How friendly/social will you be with your students? Do you want your relationship with your students to be casual or formal? How will you establish a professional relationship and maintain the right balance between instructor/mentor and student?

Questions you may want to address regarding your students’ behavior:

  • Do you want them to call you “Ms.” or “Mr.” or would you prefer they refer to you by your first name?
  • Is it acceptable for students to eat in your classroom or not? What about chewing gum? What about reading the newspaper in class?
  • What about sleeping in class?
  • Do you want your students to turn off their phones in class?
  • Can they put their feet on the desks or not?

Interactions in the Classroom

Our heterogeneous students have a wide array of educational and life experiences as well as various levels of preparation in the subject you will be teaching. Interactions in the classroom will vary during a semester, sometimes even from class to class. While you cannot orchestrate exactly how each and every class will run, it is possible to prepare a wide range of topics and techniques from which to draw.

To help prepare for the semester, you may want to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do you intend to do as the instructor in the classroom? Do you see yourself as someone who supplements lectures with additional material, someone who reteaches difficult problems from lecture, someone who leads lab sections, or a combination of all the above? What do you want them to learn from you? What does the faculty supervisor of the course expect from you.
  • What happens if your students don’t always do the readings? (tip—they won’t!) How will this affect your review of the material and interactions in the classroom?
  • How are your students’ varied academic preparation affecting the discussion? How is your own background influencing discussions and conversations in your classroom?
  • In your own experience, what were some of your best classroom experiences? How were they different from the less successful experiences?
  • How can you connect what they are learning in this course with what actually goes on in the discipline beyond the level of this course?

What are students looking for in a TA and how can you break down the barriers?

Although your students are very different from each other, there are some constants in what they are looking for in a TA. They are looking for someone who is interested in the topic and in teaching as well as someone who is flexible and caring.

They do not expect you to teach or act like an American, but there are certain ways you can break down the barriers that can influence teaching and learning. These barriers may be due to age, cultural differences, or a variety of other factors. Most important, your own style will evolve as you gain more teaching experience, make mistakes and learn from these mistakes.

Just like you, your students are very busy and have a variety of responsibilities. They have responsibilities for the other classes in which they are enrolled (most are taking a full load while working at a job for 15 hours per week or more), extra curricular activities (these include clubs, social service organizations, sororities, fraternities), and families (children, spouse, parents, etc.). Many of our students are over committed, attempting to juggle full time school, full time jobs, and full time lives. Keep this in mind when you are planning discussions and classroom exercises. Make sure you respect their ideas and experiences—they will have many—and help them bring outside learning into the classroom. Your class is not just about what is in the book, but how it relates to the world around them. Sometimes they need help remembering this and making those connections.

Some ways to break down the barriers between you and your students are:

  • Get to know your students. Introduce yourself, tell them how to pronounce your name (maybe a few times including writing it on the board), and a little about you. It helps if they see you are a person and not just a TA for the course.
  • Get to know their names as much as possible. If you have trouble pronouncing their names, tell them so and ask them to repeat themselves. If you can’t remember their name (even over the course of the semester), ask them to tell you again. Knowing your students’ names goes a long way to forging connections between you and it helps enormously with classroom management.
  • Students are also looking for your enthusiasm for the discipline. Why did you choose this field? They also don’t want to be treated like teaching is a second priority for you, so consider ways to bring them into the discipline and your own interests in it.
  • Think of ways to connect with your students in spite of your differences. What brings you together? Interest in the discipline? Knowledge of class materials?
  • If you can, take time to personalize your responses to your students. If they have a different major, use their knowledge of another field to contextualize and push the students to think of your course in another way. Think about what they already know—try not to teach well above or well below them. Although you will have a variety of skills, knowledge, and interest levels in the class, there are ways to help them teach each other.
  • Office hours—think about what you want to accomplish during office hours. Is it a formal time to discuss only the classroom material? Or is it an opportunity for students to come ask you questions beyond the material presented in class?
  • Access to you—what level of access are you comfortable with in relation to your students? Email is nearly always a good idea, but what about phone numbers? Office phone numbers may be ok, but think carefully if you want students to have access to your home or mobile number. These second two may not be a good idea. A few tips about access:
    • If you want to confine your responses to emails to a few days a week, or a particular time of each day, or only Monday through Friday, make sure you are clear with your students and let them know your schedule. For example, if you only answer emails Tuesdays and Thursdays until 5 pm, be sure to tell your students early in the semester.
    • If you hold office hours in your office and there is phone access available, you can give your students that number and let them know that they can always call during your office hours and you will pick up. Some students will be unable to come to your office hours due to school or work schedule conflicts and may only be able to reach you at this time via phone. If you only want them to call during this time and no other, tell them this early in the semester.

Discussion and Classroom Time

If your class is based even partially on discussion (and even lab and lecture classes have some discussion), it is important to figure out if your students are staying with you.

You may want to think about the following:

  • How do I keep their attention and evaluate if they are understanding me during class? What do I do if they don’t understand?
    • Keeping eye contact with the students may be helpful in keeping their attention and evaluating if they understand.
    • Even if you are writing on the board, turn around frequently to make points and ask follow up questions.
  • How do I combine my own experiences and information with questions about the material?
  • Keep in mind that there may be challenges with language. If you aren’t totally comfortable in English, it is important to acknowledge the difficulties and let the students help you. If you have difficulty pronouncing a word, use the board to write it out and have the students help. You can also use body language, diagrams, pictures, handouts, etc., to help take the pressure off you.
  • During class preparation, think about the kinds of questions a first time learner of the subject might ask and prepare some answers. While it is important to leave room for creativity and the unexpected, there are some things students will typically ask. You can always ask a more experienced TA from your course for some suggestions in this area as well.
  • How will you factor class participation in the classroom process? How do I get students to participate in class discussions?

Some points about discussions:

  • Knowing the structure of the course and how a particular day fits in to the scheme of the class is also a good idea. At the beginning of each class, you can help the students understand how the class related to what they’ve already learned and how it is a bridge to the next subject. Since they are usually very new to the topic (and may not be able to make those connections themselves), giving them structure can help them begin to learn those connections.
  • What are the goals of the class meeting? How does today’s goal connect with the goals of the semester? It is important to be clear each day about what you are doing and how it relates to the semester.
  • How can I use their questions to push the discussion/lecture/lab exercise forward? How do I start out with ideas/lecture/discussion and then turn it into a question?
  • Consider ways to help students learn discussion techniques. Some of them are very shy or are not used to talking in class. Think about ways to start discussion and ask questions without making the students feel:
    • Defensive if they don’t know the answer.
    • Consider how they can feel pushed without feeling threatened.
  • You will probably want to start early, challenge them, and respect their differences while participating.

Personal and Professional Issues

During the semester, there may be personal and professional issues you must work out. These issues may be your own (workload issues, course work, personal life) or your students’; but either way, it is important to consider your options early in the semester.

Some issues may be:

  • Grading—how will you deal with personal (and sometimes very compelling) pleas for a higher grade that you do not believe is deserved? These pleas can range from, “I need an A in this class to get into medical school…please bump me up from a B to an A!” to '"" worked really hard for this class and I don’t think I deserved a C" to "I had trouble keeping up with the class because of an illness/lack of sleep/ course overload/ couldn’t understand you, etc."
  • How can gender impact classroom experience, discussions, etc? Your gender may make a difference in the classroom, but the students’ gender may also have an effect. Gender norms are not the same all over the world, and many of our students have different ideas of what is appropriate. You may want to think about how that will affect your teaching and/or the classroom experience.
  • How can race impact classroom experience, discussions, etc?
  • How will you deal with racism, sexism, or discrimination regarding sexual orientation against a student or yourself?
  • Finally, it is vital that a student not be asked to be a ‘representative’ of/for a particular group. For example, the one woman in the class is not representative of all women, the Hindu man is not representative of all Hindus, the physics major is not representative of all physics majors.

If you have any questions, or we can be of any help, please contact us.

©2017, School of Graduate Studies, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey