A Few Tips for First-Time International TAs

    Posted on Wednesday, Jan 17, 2018
    Recently I was on the panel of a new and perspective International Teaching Assistants training program, and together with other experienced TAs, we got many questions from the audience about what to do at the beginning of the semester. I thought those were typical for international graduate students to ask. Here I just want to share with you a few questions and my answers as recommendations. It is quite a challenge for people who are TA-ing for the first time, and it must be even harder for those who just came to the United States and are still trying to move into the American classroom culture. I experienced these difficulties first-hand a few years ago. However, we need to believe in ourselves that we will eventually overcome the panic and nervousness, because after all, we will be there in the classroom as educators, making positive impacts on our students’ lives.
    • I am assigned to be a TA, but I’ve never TA-ed before. What should I do?
      • Congratulations, someone in the department believes in your knowledge and ability to be a great teacher. Now take a deep breath, and write an email to the professor (instructor of record) of that course. You will need to first of all, set up an appointment to meet with your professor and discuss his/her expectation of your job. This include (but not limited to) the following things: what the course is about; what is your background in this subject; who are the target students; how many of them will be in the class; what do the exams and assignments look like; do you need to help prepare course materials or you are just the grader; how long is the turnover time for grading; does the professor expect you to teach some of the class sessions or not;  do you need to physically sit in the classroom every time or you only need to be there for several occasions; when and for how long should you host your weekly office hours; etc. These are crucial points you need to be clear about before getting into the actual semester. Believe me, knowing these will help greatly reduce your panic level.
    • I am assigned to be the TA for a course that I’ve never taken as an undergrad. What should I do?
      • Talk to the department advisor/director of graduate programs and see if this is the best arrangement, only if you really feel like you are lacking the ability to handle such a course. Truth is that, many departments run General Education courses and they don’t really have a choice but to assign all their TAs to a very limited number of course choices. I was put into the exact same situation several years ago, and I talked to the professor of that assigned course before the semester started. The professor told me one thing that I still remember today – as a graduate student I should have the learning skills to absorb information and critically analyze course materials way much faster than the undergraduate students do. Therefore, I should be confident about my ability to handle the TA job. I switched major between my Master’s and Ph.D., so that course was completely new to me at the time (I never took that course as an undergrad). I did end up spending extra time every week reading about the subject, and my grading work went extremely slow at the beginning. However, together with my professor, we were able to build that confidence as the semester went. So my tip here is – work with your professor, spend that extra time, and be confident about yourself.
    • I am a shy person and English is my second language. So I feel quite nervous every time I stand in front of a large classroom of American students. What should I do?
      • Yes, they are native speakers, but you are the expert! Whether you are just a TA for your professor or teaching a class session all by yourself, you will need to remember that you are the graduate student that knows the course materials and the professor’s expectations the best. Yes, you will make mistakes because you are still practicing your public speaking skills. But the most important thing is the actual course content. You need to focus on that instead of thinking about being a non-native speaker all the time. From my own experience, I found it better to be honest with my students at the first time. When I was teaching discussion sessions, I let my students know that I am still practicing English as my second language, and if I am not clear about anything, they should speak up in class immediately and let me know. They helped me a lot to improve my teaching in the English language, and I offered them “an outsider’s view” on many American history subjects that we were talking about in class. It was a meaningful exchange and a wonderful experience. One other thing about this – my professor always tells me that it is important for the students to understand “why you are there” – what attracts you to this major and this subject, and how did you transform that curiosity into actively learning as a student. These will be interesting ice breakers that your students enjoy hearing about, so please tell them at the beginning of the semester. In this way, your students can get a better idea of who you are and why you become a TA or a teacher in that class.
    Mingqian Liu | Architecture
    Mingqian Liu is a fourth-year doctoral student in the Department of Architecture


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