In this section, A. C. Kemp shares some of the unique challenges international teaching assistants (ITAs) encounter in their first teaching assignments. She also describes MIT courses and resources, including the User-friendly Classroom series, designed to support these novice educators.
Teaching for the First Time
Teaching for the first time can be pretty scary for anyone. Will my students understand my explanations? Will they spend more time looking at their Facebook page than the board? Will they ask me a question I can’t answer? In many ways, it’s a voyage into the unknown.
International teaching assistants (ITAs) worry about these things, too. However, they also face challenges unique to their situation.
The most obvious is language. Sometimes, their pronunciation can be unclear, and their fluency can be limited, making it difficult for them to explain complex concepts in English. They may also have some difficulty understanding their students’ speech, making them afraid to solicit or answer questions.
Culture also plays a part. As one example, in the United States, students often call their professor by their first name; in other cultures, this can be seen as disrespectful. In addition, the educational culture in some countries discourages student questions and stresses a lecture format. Therefore, students from those cultures can be unprepared for the expectations of MIT undergraduates, who tend to be accustomed to a less formal and more interactive environment.
ITA Training at MIT
Instructors in MIT’s English Language Studies program teach eight communications subjects for non-native speakers, two of which are specifically designed to help international students become successful teaching assistants.
The first is 21G.232 / 21G.233 Advanced Speaking and Critical Listening Skills (ELS). This subject addresses context-specific communicative tasks, such as teaching classes, presenting at conferences and interviewing for jobs, as well as improving pronunciation. Offered in both spring and fall, it is one semester long and meets three hours a week.
The second course, 21G.217 / 21G.218 Workshop in Strategies for Effective Teaching (ELS), is a teacher training class that meets for only one week in January. This class, which focuses on classroom and communication strategies, was the inspiration for the User-friendly Classroom series, a video-based supplemental resource that takes a new approach to teacher training by reimagining the classroom though the lens of User Experience (UX). Including interviews with undergraduates and experienced ITAs, the videos in this series explain what ITAs can expect from students—and what students expect from their ITAs. It also gives ITAs concrete examples of how to meet those expectations.
The User-friendly Classroom series and the two ELS courses complement MIT’s other resources for teaching assistants, including subject-specific teaching assistant training in individual departments and the Teaching & Learning Laboratory, which serves all MIT educators. While no resource can entirely prepare an ITA for his or her first class, all of us involved in working with these educators hope the materials and support we provide will make the unknown a little more knowable.