While most graduate students spend late July relaxing and recharging before the academic grind resumes in August, UNL’s international graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) are gathering in Burnett Hall to participate in the Institute for International Teaching Assistants (ITA), an intensive workshop designed to prepare international GTAs to teach in American classrooms. Over the course of two weeks, GTAs will spend hours in language and pedagogy classes, learning instructional strategies, discussing classroom management and active learning, and improving their English pronunciation, intonation, and cross-cultural communication.
Of the several hundred teaching assistants employed by UNL each year, approximately 150 are international graduate students (Office of Graduate Studies, 2017), who provide a valuable contribution to the undergraduate teaching mission of the University. In 2016, 72 students from 16 countries participated in the ITA, with instructional responsibilities in a range of disciplines, including Modern Languages & Literatures, Electrical Engineering, Physics, Business, and Computer Science.
As academic culture and classroom norms vary across cultures, Graduate Studies established the ITA in 1988 to help international GTAs understand the teaching role in the American university classroom, develop instructional strategies, and improve English communication skills. Each day, students spend several hours in classes focused on three areas:
- Pedagogy, which teaches students specific classroom skills, such as planning for the first day of class, constructing a syllabus, using visual aids effectively, dealing with problem students, organizing lectures, and asking and answering students’ questions;
- English language skills, which allows students to practice pronunciation, enunciation, stress and intonation, and listening comprehension; and
- Cross-cultural communication, which provides students with tools to help them establish rapport in the classroom, learn about American teaching styles, and understand differences between student and teacher roles in the U.S. and in their own countries.
In the afternoon, participants apply what they’ve learned in microteaching sessions presenting mini-lectures to instructors and undergraduate students, who then provide immediate feedback on teaching and language skills.
At the conclusion of the two-week institute, GTAs will participate in a final panel evaluation, presenting a 10-minute lesson on a topic assigned by their departments to a panel consisting of a faculty member from their own department, two faculty members from other departments, an English language instructor, and an undergraduate student. In order to be considered for an instructional assignment, the panel must rate the GTA as “Ready to Teach,” based on the GTAs demonstrated spoken English proficiency and ability to present the lesson clearly. Graduate Studies continues to assist those that successfully complete the ITA over the course of their first semester of teaching, by periodically observing the GTA in the classroom and providing individualized consultations to share feedback regarding their language, teaching, and intercultural skills, as needed.
How it helps students
Former ITA participants have described the experience positively, appreciating both the knowledge they gained regarding American teaching techniques, as well as the opportunity to spend an extensive amount of time with other international students from a variety of cultures and disciplines. Wahid Zaman, a doctoral student in Materials Engineering from Bangladesh, noted:
I love the training sessions [on] how to efficiently communicate with students, deal with all kinds of situations, maintain a friendly yet professional attitude towards students … which later on ha[ve] proven very helpful. Outside that, it was wonderful to befriend a lot of international students, that helped a lot to build a good social connection, even though I was at that time entirely new in Lincoln. (personal correspondence, June 27, 2017).
Another former participant, Materials Engineering doctoral student Ramin Hosseinabad from Iran, cited “the amount of useful techniques and complimentary information that was provided to [him] by the instructors” as the most valuable part of his ITA experience:
The comments for how to check in with students every now and then to see whether everyone is on the same boat still and taking [in] the material of the class, or whether they have any questions or comments, and waiting for them to respond even in sheer silence … was a crucial lesson to learn. The posture while writing on the board, being sufficiently loud and clear in speaking, and beyond all that, showing students that as a TA you genuinely care about their learning were all some of the most important life-lessons! (personal correspondence, June 28, 2017).
This year’s group of international GTAs, who will begin the ITA in two weeks, can look forward to a busy and ultimately enriching experience. Whether those GTAs teach for a year or the rest of their careers, the skills learned in the ITA can benefit international graduate students in whatever career they pursue.
Office of Graduate Studies. (2017). Institute for International Teaching Assistants Participant Workbook. University of Nebraska-Lincoln.