Teaching assistant education for international TAs (Transcript)

Produced by Lisa Speckhard and Matt Davis

The life of teaching assistant at University of Wisconsin-Madison is often challenging, as TAs must balance their own coursework with instructing, grading and office hours. Imagine how these responsibilities are complicated when you must teach in your second language- in a classroom culture very different from your own.


Voice over: There are many international TAs at UW-Madison, and Gail Ibele, faculty associate in the English as a Second Language Department, runs the International TA training program to lend these graduate students a hand.

GAIL IBELE: Some students just sign up on their own, because they see that it’s a course we offer and they would like help, sometimes departments require students to take the course. Right now the majority of our students are from China.. but over the years we’ve had students from just about every country imaginable, and people are, for the most part, really appreciative once they’ve taken it.

VO: The program focuses on three areas: pronunciation and communication, teaching methodology, and cultural education about the US education system, including classroom culture.

VO: You might assume the biggest struggle is communication, and this is the case for some TAs, like Xinyi, a TA for the Chemistry Department from China.

XINYI LI: I think the most difficult part is the language problem. Sometimes I don’t understand my students’ questions and it’s a big problem.

VO: But communication is not a problem as often as you think. Steven Long, also from China, is a TA in the Journalism and Mass Communication Department,

STEVEN LONG: I was kind of nervous about teaching native speakers, especially, many of those long academic words are too long for me to pronounce, I can’t really pronounce them!

VO: But soon he overcame this fear:  

SL: I still feel a little bit nervous, but in general I think that here students have a very high tolerance for foreign accent, given that there are so many international TAs.

VO: Ibele knows this, which is why the program focuses on teaching methodology over pronunciation

GL: What we see as their greatest need is the teaching. Because it takes a long time to make improvements in speech and in pronunciation, whereas, teaching methods, if you can become a good teacher, students are going to be more forgiving. Many of these students get outstanding reviews, and it’s not because of their pronunciation, but it’s because they are good teachers who care about their students.

VO: But the culture lesson is very important too

GL: Most of these, especially the Asians, come from very different educational systems, and they are used to being in a classroom where the teacher lectures and the students take notes and they don’t ask questions, and it’s not interactive, and education’s different here.

VO: Steven really appreciated this culture lesson:  

SL: I think for me, the most challenging part is actually cultural difference, I thought I was kind of familiar with western culture … but after coming here and really teaching American students, I feel like sometimes, my method simply does not work.

VO: Steven gave a small example:

SL: “In class I used to use expressions like, “You guys don’t really understand it,” or “a lot of you feel confused.” But that instructor for the teaching assistant training, said pointed out that, in American culture, these kind of expressions are treated as like discouraging. So I think that course is very helpful, in terms of, help me to detect what I need to avoid and what I need to further implement.

VO: The TAs may come for technical training, but they often find a support group along the way:

GL: It’s a small group and it’s very supportive, so it gives them a comfortable group to interact in.

VO: Steven agrees,

SL: I do feel like I belong to a small group of people, to me that’s really important.

VO: But his close-knit group of TAs does come with a downside:

SL: I think our problem is too international, that we really lack the voice of local … we feel a little bit detached … actually we would like to have more local TAs to work with, that would help a lot.