International TAs

Most of the problems faced by international TAs are the same problems faced by U.S. TAs, but because international TAs are not only new to Rutgers and to teaching but also to this country, it is possible that some unique concerns may trouble them.

Perhaps the greatest concern of international TAs is language. They worry that they will not be able to understand their students or that their students will not be able to understand them. This is, of course, a very real concern and one that can lessen only as the TA gains experience as a speaker of English. To hasten the process, TAs should try to immerse themselves in the language: listen to television and radio; read American newspapers and magazines; speak English as often as possible, seeking out native speakers with whom to practice speaking and listening skills.

Knowing what to expect in the classroom may make the first months easier. Be aware of the fact that your accent may be unfamiliar to many of your undergraduates (90% of your students are from New Jersey, a state which has its own distinct brands of regional English), so you should speak slowly to give them a chance to get used to your accented English. When you introduce yourself on the first day (being sure to write your name on the blackboard), you may wish to tell the students what country you are from and why you are here at Rutgers. Students who understand a little about a person's culture and background are more willing to give that person a chance and make the small exertion necessary to understand an unfamiliar accent.

Let your students know that you care about them and are interested in them. You may wish to explain that you hope the classroom will be a kind of partnership where both parties have something to offer. You look to them for help with correcting any initial difficulties you may have with the language. They can look to you for expertise in the subject you are teaching. Working together, you can both benefit.

Make it clear to the students that you expect them to let you know when they don't understand something you say, and promise to do the same for them. If a student asks you a question you do not understand, ask the student to rephrase it. Don't worry that saying you don't understand will compromise your authority; pretending to understand when you clearly do not will do much more to undermine your authority and lose your students' respect. During the first few weeks at least, pause often to ask students if they are following you, if they have any questions, and wait for an answer. Let them know that you really do want them to tell you when they are having difficulties. Make sure that during your lectures you write all key words on the board so that you are sure the students are understanding them correctly.

To avoid having students use your accent against you, i.e., telling you that they misunderstood you so they did not complete their homework or study for a test (do not worry—very few students will do things like this), give the students handouts detailing all assignments or write them on the blackboard so there can be no misunderstanding. A clear and detailed syllabus will prevent many of these problems.

American students may seem very different from students in other countries. International TAs are sometimes shocked at first by what they perceive as a lack of respect towards them as teachers. Understanding some of the differences in American students may help to alleviate this shock. One way of doing so would be by sitting in on some undergraduate courses in the university during your first weeks as a TA. This will allow you to see the varieties of accepted classroom behavior and the kinds of student/teacher relationships common in this country.

In the United States students come from a wide range of backgrounds. Some of your students may be older than you expect; many will probably be holding part-time jobs. The dress and manner of your students may be quite casual; do not interpret this as a sign of disrespect. Classrooms are sometimes quite informal. American students will often question or even disagree with something the teacher says. This is accepted classroom behavior and is not meant hostilely or as a challenge to the teacher's authority; the class is perceived as a dialogue rather than a monologue.

You will probably make some mistakes. Try to laugh at them and make them work to your benefit. By demonstrating to the students that you care and by displaying enthusiasm for your subject, you can limit the number of problems you encounter in your first few months as a TA.