May 2014
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ITAS' EXPERIENCES IN U.S. CLASSROOMS: A REPORT FOR ITA PROGRAM DEVELOPERS
Ekaterina Arshavskaya, Utah State University, Logan, Utah, USA


International teaching assistants (ITAs), as new instructors in an unfamiliar instructional context, encounter a variety of challenges, which has led to the emergence of a body of research dealing with ITAs’ preparation. However, up-to-date research on ITAs remains quantitative or merely offers descriptions of ITA preparation programs (Trebing, 2007). Less attention has been paid to the ITAs’ own perspectives on the nature of their experiences in U.S. classrooms, the kinds of challenges they face as instructors in a new instructional context, and their views on how their ITA preparation programs and departments can better support them. Based on a series of in-depth interviews with a number of ITAs, this study draws attention to the ITAs as critical members of U.S. academic communities and raises awareness of their unique contributions to the U.S. educational system.

That said, the purpose of this paper is twofold: (1) to provide insights into the ITAs’ perspectives on their first semester of teaching in the United States, including examining the challenges they face, and (2) to consider possible revisions to existing ITA preparation programs based on the ITAs’ own views and a review of the available literature. Overall, this study presents information that has the potential to prompt future empirical investigations into educational cultures as the apply to new instructors in international contexts and to possibly inform ITA preparation programs at U.S. universities which may lead to revised curricula. The study will answer the following research questions:

  1. What are the challenges faced by ITAs in U.S. classrooms?
  2. How does U.S. educational culture compare to the ITAs’ home country educational cultures?
  3. How, from the ITAs’ perspective, can ITA preparation programs better prepare and support incoming ITAs?

The Study

Methodology

Informed by the qualitative methodology approach (Strauss & Corbin, 1998), this study examines three semistructured interviews with each of the six participating ITAs. The goal of qualitative research is to “understand the nature or the meaning of the experience” of the ITAs (Strauss & Corbin, 1998, p. 11) and “to offer insight, enhance understanding, and provide a meaningful guide for action” (Strauss & Corbin, 1998, p. 12). Additionally, a series of subsequent email exchanges with the participating ITAs served as a member check (i.e., the qualitative researcher's technique to improve the validity and credibility of the findings) and was integrated into the data analysiswas integrated into the data analysis. Consequently, the data analysis reflects the collaborative and co-constructed interpretation of the interviews with the participants, which strengthens the validity of the final analysis.

Participants

Table 1. Participants

ITA pseudonym

Country of origin

Level

Major

Gender

Michael

China

Master of Science

Computer Science

Male

Madhav

India

Master of Science

Computer Science

Male

Pia

India

Master of Science

Computer Science

Female

Vickey

India

PhD

Computer Science

Male

Irina

Russia

PhD

Chemistry

Female

Saleh

Nepal

PhD

Chemistry

Male


Table 1 presents the six participants in the study.

Instructional Context

The ITA training workshops are offered twice throughout the academic year (the summer and fall semesters) at the same university. During the workshops, the ITAs discuss topics related to U.S. educational culture, are introduced to the concept of interactive teaching, learn about the discourse of teaching, and talk about issues related to office hour meetings with students. In addition, the ITAs participate in daily practicums. For example, they are required to present a concept or a term from their respective field of study, or explain a problem and its solution, applying the principles of interactive teaching discussed as part of the ITA workshop.

Data Collection

The data were collected during the ITA training workshops offered at a large southwestern U.S. university. The ITAs were interviewed about their teaching experience in the United States at the beginning, middle, and end of their first semester of teaching in this context.

Results

Research Question 1: What are the challenges faced by the ITAs in the U.S. classroom?

In this study, similar to the findings of earlier research (Bresnahan & Cai, 2000; Kuo, 2002), the ITAs identified the following challenges: classroom management, and linguistic, instructional, and cultural challenges. Table 2 summarizes the kinds of challenges identified by the participants. The categories (the kinds of challenges) in Table 2 were drawn from the previous literature (Bresnahan & Cai, 2000; Kuo, 2002), while the language (i.e., the specific examples) was provided by the ITAs and paraphrased by the researcher to better suit the genre of the academic article, without modifying the content of the participants¹ interviews.

Table 2. ITAs’ challenges in U.S. classrooms

Classroom Management Challenges

1. U.S. students do not review the course syllabus.

2. U.S. students do not clean their desks and equipment after a laboratory session.

3. U.S. students do not pay attention during the class and do not take notes from the board.

4. U.S. students use bad language and act disrespectfully during an office hours’ meeting.

Linguistic Challenges

1. U.S. students use more informal language, like slang.

2. U.S. students do not talk in long sentences, like international students.

Instructional Challenges

1. ITAs lack knowledge in regard to the academic level of their students.

2. ITAs need to develop additional techniques for teaching in the lab, as it is difficult to be interactive in this environment.

3. ITAs need to learn to match the professor’s level when coteaching the same course.

Cultural Challenges


1. ITAs deal with the negative attitudes towards international instructors exhibited by U.S. undergraduate students.

2. ITAs learn the differences in relation to the physical contact between themselves and their students as compared to home country norms.


Research Question 2: How does U.S. educational culture compare to the ITAs’ home country culture?

All the participants admitted that even though at first they felt less comfortable in U.S. classrooms, as the semester progressed they were able to gradually adapt to U.S. culture. In part, this may be explained by the participants’ prior familiarity with the United States, in terms of both general and academic culture. For example, two of the participants reported that they had previously visited the United States on a tourist visa, and four others reported that they had a level of familiarity with U.S. culture gained from the mass media and through interactions with friends and relatives already residing in the Untied States. Table 3 summarizes the key differences identified by the participants.

Table 3. U.S. educational culture through the eyes of the ITAs

The differences identified by the participants

  1. Less formal classroom culture (e.g., the students are referred to by their first names, can eat in the classroom, arrive late, and wear jeans and other informal attire)
  2. More extensive use of technology
  3. More approachable faculty members
  4. More flexible and less systematic teaching style
  5. More interactive classrooms


Research Question 3: How, from the ITAs’ perspective, can the ITA preparation programs better prepare and support incoming ITAs?

Table 4 summarizes the changes proposed by the participants.

Table 4. The changes proposed by the ITAs

ITAs’ suggestions on how to revise the ITA preparation program

  1.  ITAs were interested in learning more about the differences between the classroom culture of the United States and that of their home countries.
  2. ITAs suggested inviting professors from their respective fields of study to give demonstration lessons during the ITA training workshop.
  3. ITAs were interested in learning more about the phonetics of English in order to improve their pronunciation.
  4. ITAs were concerned about learning additional techniques for teaching in the lab as it is difficult to be interactive in this environment.
  5. ITAs recommended bringing “real” students to the ITA workshops in order to participate in the office hours’ role-plays. For example, one playing a really aggressive student or another asking “silly” questions.


Discussion and Implications

Overall, the ITAs in this study valued the opportunity to teach in a new instructional context and learn from this experience. Yet, in accord with the findings of previous research (Bresnahan & Cai, 2000; Kuo, 2002), they experienced classroom management, and instructional, linguistic and cultural challenges. Consequently, ITA preparation programs and respective departments clearly need to do more in order to support the international instructors.

In order to address the social and cultural challenges, a Buddy Program for ITAs has been proposed and successfully implemented at Michigan State University (Kuo, 2002). According to this initiative, an ITA is paired with a U.S. undergraduate student for a short period of time, which allows both groups of students to learn more about each others’ struggles and beliefs and to develop a better understanding of each others’ experiences. In addition, some U.S. universities engage U.S. undergraduate students in an intercultural training course (Trebing, 2007), which helps this group of students become more open to other cultures and less ethnocentric. In regard to the linguistic challenges, some ITA preparation programs have introduced a component on English as a global language, which increases the overall tolerance for world Englishes and helps shift the students' mindset away from the deficit construction of the ITAs (LoCastro & Tapper, 2006). In relation to the classroom management and instructional challenges that the ITAs face, there seems to be a need of greater collaboration between the respective ITAs’ departments and the ITA preparation programs. This idea was explicitly suggested by four of the participating ITAs. For example, professors from the ITAs’ respective fields of study can be invited to give demonstration lessons during the ITA training workshop. In addition, ongoing instructional support and meetings with other teaching assistants and mentors are necessary for the ITAs’ successful adaptation to the U.S. educational system.

Despite a limited sample of participants, this study contributes to the data-driven accounts of the ITAs’ experiences in U.S. classrooms and calls for further longitudinal ethnographic studies of ITAs. Such research is needed to help improve the ITA preparation programs at U.S. universities. In addition, by focusing on the ITAs' lived experiences in the U.S. classrooms and making their challenges visible and their voices "heard", this study hopes to increase awareness of the importance of ITAs as crucial members of U.S. academic communities and urges ITA preparation programs and respective departments to provide greater ongoing support to this group of international educators through, for example, promoting greater collaboration between the ITA programs and respective departments. While the scale of the study is small, the perspectives of the interviewed ITAs can help inform other U.S. ITA programs which might experience similar challenges. On a larger scale, other issues that many ITA programs in the U.S. face are the lack of consistency among the ITA preparation programs (including the length of the preparation, where the programs are housed within a university, etc.) and how it is difficult to find a streamlined ITA program or a system between many universities.

REFERENCES

Bresnahan, M. J., & Cai, D. H. (2000). From the other side of the desk: Conversations with international students about teaching in the US. Communication Quarterly, 48(2), 65–75.

Kuo, Y-H. (2002). International teaching assistants on American campuses. International Journal of Curriculum and Instruction, 4(1), 63–71.

LoCastro, V., & Tapper, G. (2006). International teaching assistants and teacher identity. Journal of Applied Linguistics, 3(2), 185–218.

Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1998). Basics of qualitative research (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Trebing, D. (2007). International teaching assistants’ attitudes toward teaching and understanding of U.S. American undergraduate students (Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale).


Ekaterina Arshavskaya completed her MA studies in the applied linguistics program at the Montclair State University (NJ) in 2008, and she received her PhD in applied linguistics at Penn State in 2013. Currently, she is an assistant professor of English as a second language (ESL) and ITA program coordinator at Utah State University (Logan, UT).
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