Teaching Tips for International TAs

Author: Dalhousie University, Centre for Learning and Teaching

Every new teacher faces a great challenge. For international teaching assistants (ITA), the task of teaching includes reaching across different cultural values and assumptions, different educational systems, different native languages, and non-verbal communication systems. Thus, the challenge is greater, but so is the opportunity. As an ITA, you have the chance to develop a truly sophisticated command of English, to which you may have already devoted a great deal of effort. You also have the opportunity to get inside an important part of Canadian culture, the educational system, to understand and affect it by your contribution. Furthermore, you are invited to enter into a meaningful, cooperative relationship with your students, giving both them and yourself a memorable, enriching experience.

Language Skills

You may think that your biggest problem as an ITA will be your English. Likewise, your students may be concerned, fearing that your difficulties with English will hinder their ability to succeed in the course. If you have trouble expressing yourself in English, if students have trouble understanding you, or you have trouble understanding them, make every effort you can to improve your English. Specifically, make sure that you speak English as much as possible, every day. Seek out English-speaking roommates, office mates, lab partners, coworkers, and friends.

In addition to your efforts to become comfortable in English, openly acknowledge on the first day of class that you and your students may have some difficulty communicating with each other because English is not your native language.

Tips for Ensuring Your Students Understand You

  • Speak slowly
  • Repeat and paraphrase to emphasize important ideas
  • Tell your students to raise their hands when they don’t understand

Cultural Differences

You may also be surprised at the informal behaviour of students in class and in other interactions with their professors and TAs. For instance, students may wear casual clothes to class. During class, they may eat or drink, read the newspaper, or talk with their friends. They may arrive late or leave early. They may call the teacher by his or her first name and ask questions which seem to challenge the teacher. Such behaviour may shock or offend you, if you are accustomed to a culture in which students are overtly deferential and respectful toward their teachers.

Recognize that your students are not acting disrespectful of you personally or of you as a foreigner. Rather, their behaviour is normal for them. Indeed, many students may behave informally with teachers they like and respect. However, this does not mean that you must tolerate any and all behaviour in your classroom. On the contrary, teachers commonly attempt to discourage behaviour that appears disruptive to the class, such as students talking loudly with one another.

Students expect and appreciate a variety of things from their teachers, some of which may be unlike the expectations of students in your country. For example:

  • They expect teachers to explain everything to them very fully, particularly the details of what they are expected to do in the course and how grades are assigned.
  • They value teachers who are friendly and open, communicating something about themselves as people.
  • They may want teachers to interact with them in class, encouraging student participation and dealing gently with incorrect responses.
  • They prefer teachers who make their classes interesting by using a lively presentation style, “relevant” and intriguing examples, and humour.
  • They respect teachers who are knowledgeable, but who are also willing to admit that they do not know something when that is the case.

Sitting in on a class given by another TA may provide helpful insight on how students and TAs act and interact. Discuss your concerns about your teaching with your supervisor, your fellow TAs, or with the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology.

Adapted from:

Axelson, Elizabeth & Hofer, Barbara* (1991). “Suggestions for the International Teaching Assistant.” In B. Black & L.K. Acitelli (Eds.), A Guidebook for University of Michigan Teaching Assistants (pp.5-9). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, The Center for Research on Learning & Teaching.

*The authors note that a number of their ideas are derived from Gary Althen’s Manual for Foreign Teaching Assistants.

Diamond, N., Hahn, L., Helgesen, M., & Visek, P. (1988). Handbook for Teaching Assistants at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Office of Instructional Technology and Design.