March 2014
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Samira Daneshgar Asl

My name is Samira Daneshgar Asl. I am in my third year as an oceanography PhD student from the Islamic Republic of Iran. I took the ITA program because I thought it would help improve my English skills and aid my ability to be a better professor and presenter. In my experience with regard to being an international teaching assistant, I have found that there is no real guide to perfection in your English training. That being said, I have found that above all things one should have an abundance of patience in your learning. Learning English, alongside studies that you are preparing to teach, is quite difficult to master along with maintaining a competence in your field. What I first noticed, as I began to learn, were the accents of the other ITAs. Hearing the American accent and wanting to speak as clearly as possible was difficult when I was surrounded by other accents from other countries all trying to do the same thing. Not everyone pronounces English in the same way, and speaking with a coherent ability is something that must be mastered in order to build confidence.

I can’t speak for all students, just the ones I have had conversations with. When my foreign colleagues and I would speak about our English skills, we are consciously aware that we are not great speakers of English. Our desires are to be able to speak English with our own accent “washed out,” if you will. Therefore, our primary concern is having access to instructors that speak with the accent in English that we wish to adopt. Not only to emulate their mannerisms in presenting, but to also master the linguistic ability to pronounce words in the same way. We look up to these individuals and wish to mimic their abilities, but when we don’t have (or have inadequate) access to them, we feel disheartened and less motivated. This is just my own observation.

I am suggesting that nonnative speakers should be taught by native speakers. Imagine if you will a beam of light. If that light has many filters in front of it, it cannot illuminate a room as it once had. Now look at nonnative ITAs, each one representing a filter in the linguistic process. They each have their own opacity and will dilute the amount of linguistic ability. I guess what I am trying to say is that my colleagues and I just want the same amount of instruction, or at least the opportunity to have it. We all want some sunshine.

Finally, the best activity that really helped increase my confidence was constantly giving presentations. This exercise forces you to apply what you have learned, and the nature of feedback being applied to future presentations helps build your confidence with the hope of making you a better speaker and presenter.

Alberto Miras Fernandez

I am a 30-year-old Spaniard who came to the United States 9 months ago. Currently, I am studying for an MA in Spanish and English as a second language.

How I ended up in the middle of Texas is a long story, but the point is that I did not expect to be as happy, at ease, and as integrated as I am right now. It is not the first time I lived in another country. Before coming here, I spent 2 years in Bristol (England), but astonishingly the cultural shock that I had in Texas was negligible compared to the one that I had in England. As I have been constantly saying since I arrived, people in this state are the friendliest people I have ever met; my colleagues are from many different countries, and I have felt very welcomed by Americans.

I work as a language tutor, a job that I love because it gives me the opportunity to talk with many students from around the state and show them the culture of my country, Spain, which fills me with pride. In the United States I have met a lot of new people, from many different linguistic, religious, and cultural backgrounds. I had to learn to relate to these people with respect and comprehension, without taking anything for granted and being very open-minded. Spanish society is not as rich and multicultural as is society in the United States, and this affects the way people relate to each other. Teaching in Texas for me meant meeting and trying to understand people with very different backgrounds from mine, learning new ways of interpreting the world, and becoming a real citizen of the world.

In terms of training, the educational system in the United States is very different from the Spanish one. I did not expect to take so many courses before I could start teaching Spanish as a second language, but they have been very useful. Courses about sexual harassment, research, or privacy are essential to know what and how to deal with problems and difficult situations that may arise during the semester. For instance, students’ privacy (grades, evaluations, exams) is a serious matter in Texas, and students worry a lot about it. Learning these rules has been for me the first step to understand and integrate into the American system.

On a different note, my job as a Spanish tutor from Spain in a state where there is a large population of Spanish-English bilinguals from Latin America (mostly Mexico) challenged me on a personal and professional level. Besides having to learn a lot of new vocabulary in order to understand and be able to teach Spanish in a more effective and useful way, I have discovered differences and similarities between Spain and Mexico that I did not expect to find. Since my job involves helping students to better understand the Spanish language and culture, I really had to study to be able to help them understand not only the Peninsular Spanish and culture, but also the wide varieties of Spanish languages and cultures in the world.

In conclusion, this experience has been extremely positive and if I had the chance, I would do it again without any doubt. I am very excited about the next 3 years I will stay here, and who knows? Maybe this is just the beginning of something even bigger than just the adventure of teaching and studying in the United States.

Tetyana Smotrova

I started to teach an ITA course on classroom communication in my second year as a doctoral student, having taught ESL for two semesters. By that time, I had overcome the insecurities of transitioning from my native (Ukrainian) classroom culture to the North American one. I felt quite confident in what I was doing in the classroom, which was not the case with my ITA students. Our first class began with my question, “Why do you think you are here?”, and the answer was “Because our English sucks.” These words, coming from high-level speakers of English accepted to a PhD program at an American research university, reveal how insecure ITAs can feel speaking English. With that level of confidence, they have to step into a North American classroom and interact with students, including native speakers, maintaining the authority of an expert. The challenges here are manifold: a novice teacher in a new culture speaking a nonnative language. These complexities shape three components of ITA training that overlap, interact, and feed into each other: language, culture, and teaching.

Learning to use language effectively should start with building confidence. One way to do this is through dissolving stereotypes and creating new models. My students get their first surprise as I share that they do not have to sound like native speakers. In fact, their accent may be something that they want to keep as part of their identity. What they need to accomplish is making themselves understood, which can be achieved even in one semester. Once students realize that, I share another secret: They do not have to perfectly pronounce each sound to make themselves understood. Equipped with proper thought groups, emphasis, and intonation, they can become successful speakers without being native speakers.

Learning to navigate culture in relevant ways should start with questions. A typical piece of advice for ITAs to explore culture by communicating with native speakers is often met with a question: “I go to American parties but I stay with my plate in the corner since I don’t know what to talk about. Can you give us a list of topics?” Acquiring cultural conventions within a classroom is even more challenging since they have to be embodied by ITAs in the actual teaching. A “simple” recommendation to smile and make eye contact can be the most difficult thing to implement: “I don’t smile in Chinese,” one of my students said. Enacting cultural conventions may involve part of your identity so deeply ingrained that you wouldn’t want to compromise it. Or would you, for the sake of teaching?

Learning to teach should start with creating a teaching persona. Making ITAs comfortable in the role of a teacher is an important part of training. I always ask them to think of a classroom as a special place, where you do not have to be the same person as in everyday life. As you inhabit your teaching persona, elaborate on all the details: develop teacher voice, expressive body language, and an appealing manner. Such “complex” things as proper organization, clear explanations, and handling student questions come surprisingly easily after ITAs learn to exude confidence, energy, and passion for teaching. Finally, face real students! Practicing teaching segments with actual undergraduate students can be a daunting but priceless experience that may answer another ITA puzzler: “Why do American students ask questions?”

Shuying Yang

I came from China and am currently a PhD candidate majoring in geochemistry. The TA supervisor in our department, Dr. Woody Wise, suggested I study in an ITA program to improve my English and teaching technique since I started to teach Geology 1000 Lab only 4 months after I came to the United States. Before that, the only tutoring experience I had was to help my high school classmate with her math homework. So the first time teaching Geology 1000 was literally the first time for me to speak in front of 25 people using another language, which, obviously, I did not handle very well. I used a whole weekend to write down everything I needed to say in the class and memorized it, like a squirrel trying to save hazelnuts for winter, as much as possible. If you ask me to use three words to describe my feelings before I gave my first class, I would say nervous, anxious, and terrified. For one thing, I needed to explain very complicated topics, such as the theory of plate tectonics, the rock cycle, how to locate the epicenter of earthquakes, how to calculate half-life of radioactive decay, and more to my students. For another, I needed to use English to explain these very complicated topics to my native speaker students.

However, just like every cloud has a silver lining, after knowing my difficulties, the department advisor offered me an opportunity to take English language training and advanced ESL international education training. The first lesson I learned is what the most important thing for being a TA is. It turns out that English is not the most important thing; neither is the professional knowledge. Showing you care about your students is the most important thing. So I started to try to remember all my students’ names in the new semester, offer them more flexible office hours, and think more carefully about my class schedule and teaching technique. I was also trained in many other essential aspects referring to teaching, such as how to introduce my syllabus, how to define concepts and explain processes properly, and how to interact with my students to maximize active learning. All these skills are very helpful and necessary for me to improve my teaching. For example, most of my students are not majors in geology, so it would be very difficult for them to understand some specific concepts, such as mafic and felsic magmas, normal and reverse faults, if I could not give them a clear definition. Besides, one of the most important tasks for my students in this class is to identify rock and mineral samples based on the identification flow charts. Since they need to do it step by step, it would help them a lot if I could show the identification process to them effectively and precisely.

Thanks to the intense English training and ESL TA training class and my favorite teacher Maria, now I can walk in my class comfortably and confidently. I miss those Tuesday and Thursday afternoons when I had my English class. It’s truly a fun experience from which I also learned a lot. I hope every ITA can get an opportunity as I did, which is having the intense English class at first and then taking the TA training class. And having a native speaker as a language partner is also an amazing idea; especially when your language partner has a potential career plan of being an English teacher in foreign countries.

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ALIS Open Business Meeting
Please join us on Thursday night (3/27) during the TESOL conference for the Applied Linguistics IS meeting from 6:45-8:15 p.m. in room B117 of the Convention Center. We will be celebrating our 40th year as an interest section! We hope to see you there!
ITAIS Open Business Meeting
Please join us at the TESOL conference on Thursday night (3/27) for our ITA Interest Section Open Meeting from 5:00 pm–6:30 pm (C121 Convention Center). We look forward to seeing you there!
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