Facing teaching-related challenges is a common experience not only for new international TA/TFs, but also for experienced instructors. The following section details some challenges you might expect to encounter, along with potential coping strategies. If you need help with a specific challenge, please browse the BC Resources tab for information on support that you can access, including individual consultation services. If you are dealing with a sensitive case related to college policies, it is important to confirm your approach with your departmental mentor or experienced faculty members in your department before taking any action.
There are a few basic strategies that can serve you well no matter what challenge you are facing:
- Cultivate a support network: Establish a collaborative relationship with your supervisor/professor of record for the course. Do not be afraid of contacting them and asking them for help. Their responsibility is to help you. It can also be useful to draw on the support of experienced graduate students in your program when trying to address a challenge in your course.
- Communicate clear expectations: Whether through a syllabus or through your regular communications with students, strive to be clear with your students about what they need to do to succeed in your course. Make sure that assignments, class activities, and other daily work students are asked to complete have clear instructions and are explicitly tied to the larger goals of the course.
- Seek out feedback: Encourage students to give you feedback regarding your teaching by engaging them in one-to-one conversations and/or sending out mid-semester surveys.
Accept that you will make mistakes: teaching is a complex skill that can take many years to master, and even the most experienced teachers still have classes that do not go as planned. Trust that you will improve with time and know that you have a support network here at BC that is eager to see you succeed in the classroom.
Teaching in a language other than one’s first language can present multiple challenges, from explaining complex ideas to making yourself understandable to students who may be unfamiliar with your accent. Language barriers may also influence your communication with students outside the classroom (such as in e-mail communication and during office hours).
- Take advantage of BC programs focused on English-language conversational and writing skills.
- Be well prepared for class – then your language concerns will only be about giving lectures or facilitating discussions, not about creating them as you go.
- During class, speak confidently, clearly, and slowly. Face your students and make eye contact with them.
- Investigate active learning and other teaching strategies that are less dependent on lecturing.
- Use visuals or handouts to complement your explanations.
- Early in the semester, you might choose to acknowledge possible student concerns about your accent. Let them know what their options are if they do not understand something you have said and assure them that they will get used to your accent as the semester progresses.
- Create opportunities for students to give you anonymous feedback about the course so you have the opportunity to address any concerns that arise.
Things to avoid:
- Do not get offended if students ask for explanations or clarifications, or voice a different opinion.
- Do not talk to the board or the screen when delivering your lecture or leading a discussion.
- Do not rush through the content you need to cover; try to slow down and take pauses.
After being a student for many years, you probably have some ideas about being an instructor. However, you might have already realized that your understanding about being a good instructor might not be the same as your BC students. You might also have been an instructor before coming to the U.S., but teaching strategies that worked in one cultural context might not work in another. At the beginning of a new semester, both you and your students might experience feelings of frustration as you establish a new teacher-student relationship. However, you can employ some strategies to make the transition smoother and more constructive.
- Remind yourself that U.S. classroom culture might be different from what you are used to and certain things might not be interpreted by your students in the same way. For instance, accept informal behavior (eating and talking in class, addressing one another on a first-name basis), but realize that you do not have to accept disrespectful or rude behavior from anyone.
- Talk to professors and successful TA/TFs in your department and observe their classes so you can learn from their teaching strategies.
- Be clear about your expectations and set guidelines at the beginning. Provide your students with a well-designed syllabus and review it with them when you meet the first time. Make sure that your students understand what you expect from them.
- Review previous TA/TFs’ feedback on student assignments from previous semesters of the course you are teaching and their grading protocols for exams. Model the language they employed in these tasks.
- When possible and relevant, share with the students your experiences and your life. As the students get to know you better, this will help ease your communication with them.
Things to avoid:
- Do not take students’ behavior personally. For example, chewing gum in class might be considered disrespectful in your culture, but it might not mean anything here.
- Do not feel that you have to conclusively answer every question on every topic. It is o.k. to acknowledge that some questions have no agreed-upon answer in academia.
- Do not get into a long conversation with a single student during class, as this could cause other students to become frustrated and bored. Suggest that the particular student meet you individually during your office hours.
Correcting Student Mistakes
When a student’s answer is incorrect or not supported by sufficient evidence, instructors usually begin with a positive or neutral word and then move to the real question. This is true even if the teacher suspects that the student was ill-prepared or not paying attention. Also, instructors typically do not openly and directly criticize students by saying, “You are wrong” or “That is wrong.”
A more effective approach would be to say:
- “Let’s go back. You were doing fine until you got right here. Then you missed a step right around this point.”
- “Close. Can you try again?”
- “I understand what you’re saying, but that’s not exactly what’s needed here. Think about the example I gave you a few minutes ago.”
- “You are applying X to this question. What else is relevant? What about the concept of Y discussed earlier?”
If you think you might be partly to blame for a student’s confusion, it might be helpful for you to take some responsibility for this. It will help maintain a relaxed atmosphere that encourages students to speak up and make mistakes without embarrassment.
Consider using a statement such as:
- “Maybe I didn’t express the question clearly. Let me try again.”
- “Sorry, I think I might have confused you.”
Not Knowing the Answer
Students ask questions because they are curious about a specific topic: their questions might or might not have a definitive answer. Students might also voice their opinions about theories and concepts discussed in the class. They do this to show their curiosity and critical thinking skills.
Do not feel challenged, offended, or embarrassed by students’ questions and do not take their questions personally. Treat your students as you would other academic colleagues and keep your conversations professional and intellectually stimulating.
Be honest with your students. If you know the answer, then answer the question or use the question to form a class discussion. If you can find the answer with some work, let them know you will answer the question next time. If there is no clear answer, then present to the students what leading scholars from various perspectives are arguing for and encourage them to explore the topic.
Here are some suggested responses:
- “X just asked about Y — this is an interesting question, does anyone want to try to answer it?”
- “That’s a good question, but I need to do some more research and get back to you in our next class. And, if any of you have time, see if you can find the answer too, and share what you learn with us.”
- “X just raised the issue of Y. This is exactly what scholars have been debating about and, unfortunately, there is no conclusive answer yet.”
Confidentiality of Student Records
According to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), all student information, including grades, must be kept private unless that student has explicitly given permission for their information to be released. Since you likely will not know if a student has signed such a release, it is best to politely decline any requests for student information, even from their parents. In addition, it is not appropriate to publicly post or share any student grades, as they are considered confidential.
Here are some suggested responses:
- “Thank you for your inquiry. I’m not at liberty to share that information, but the Registrar’s Office might be able to help you.”
- “Thank you for your inquiry. However, I’m not at liberty to share that information. I encourage you to discuss this with your son/daughter.”
Plagiarism & Cheating
If you suspect that a student has cheated on a test or plagiarized an assignment, you should immediately notify the appropriate person in your department. You can also review the information on Academic Integrity provided by the Office of Student Services.
The following are some books and web resources that go into more detail about strategies for international instructors teaching in the U.S.: