Rey Ty & A.. Alkarzon. (2013). Trends and Issues in Higher Education: International Teaching Assistants.
Trends and Issues in Higher Education:
International Teaching Assistants in Higher Education in the U.S.A.
Rey Ty and Awni Alkarzon
Abstract. This paper reviews the literature on international teaching assistants
(TAs). It begins with a comparison of teaching assistants and international
teaching assistants (ITAs) in the United States. Next, it identifies both the
problems and the roles of ITAs. Subsequently, recommendations are enumerated.
The paper concludes with ideas for further research.
Background. Since at least the 1970s, there has been an increase in the number
of foreign students at U.S. universities. The presence of international graduate students
has a significant impact the U.S. higher education institutions (Finder, 2005). They seek
work as teaching assistants and receive their education at U.S. universities. U.S. higher
education institutions hire international training assistants, because there is a shortage of
qualified U.S. teaching assistants (Smith, et. al., 1992). However, the TA position
requires a preparation that qualifies international graduate students to carry their
responsibilities adequately, because ITAs arrive at the U.S. as ineffective instructors and
unprepared for their teaching responsibilities (Gravois, 2005; Finder, 2005; Williams,
1992; and Bailey, et. al., 1984).
Research Problem. ITAs are passing through pedagogical and cultural issues.
The process of being a TA can be difficult for international students, as they are
confronted with the new educational environment and emergent teaching challenges, as
they adjust to the U.S. educational system. Most ITAs in the U.S. did not have the
undergraduate experience in U.S. colleges and universities (Luo, Belows, & Grady,
2000). Hence, they lack the knowledge and experience of context and their teaching
assignment and duties.
Research Questions. The research questions of this paper are the following: One,
how different are ITAs from U.S. teaching assistants (TAs)? Two, what are some of the
problems with which ITAs deal in both traditional face-to-face classroom setting and in
virtual or online distance teaching? Three, what are the duties of ITAs? Four, what are
some recommended responses to the challenges with which ITAs are confronted?
Objectives of the Research. The objectives of this research are the following: To
compare and contrast TAs and ITAs; To identify the problems of ITAs; to discuss the
duties of ITAs; to identify and discuss the problems with which ITAs are confronted; to
identity the duties of ITAs; and, to suggest some recommendations to ITAs so that they
can effectively perform their teaching duties in the higher education context in the U.S.A.
Significance. This paper is significant, because it empowers ITAs to overcome
different challenges in their attempts to be successful teachers in new cultural and
educational settings. Learning lessons from this paper, ITAs will be able to take more
responsibility for their continuing education and help them share experiences and
encourage them to feel more comfortable in their class.
Literature Review. This paper is a critical essay which reviews practice in higher
education as documented in the current literature. The link between current research on
and actual practice of ITAs will be provided. Specifically, literature about (1) the
functions of teaching assistants in general, which affect ITAs as well, (2) classroom and
distance education delivery considerations, and (3) cultural considerations will be used. A
case study of the ways in which a university in the Midwest deals with the issues
confronting ITAs through the years will be presented.
Research Methods. As a critical essay, this paper addresses the duties of ITAs
and their learning of new knowledge, skills, and attitudes so that they can be effective
instructors in higher education in the United States. Teaching assistants’ training and
development (TATD) is a specific component of faculty development (FD), of which the
training and development of ITAs is a sub-component.
International Teaching Assistants
Both ITAs and U.S. TAs perceived significant classroom management problems
but each of the two types of TAs also had unique problems. In general, teaching
assistants (TAs) play three main roles, these are: post-graduate student, instructor, and
faculty-student liaison. ITAs in particular are non-U.S. citizens or legal permanent
residents in the United States who are completing their master’s or doctoral degree,
assisting regular faculty members as TAs (Plakans, 1997). ITAs play an important role in
most U.S. higher education institution. Without their work, U.S. colleges and universities
will face difficulties in achieving their educational goals (Pica, Barnes, and Finger, 1990).
They teach university courses or assist professors, faculty members or course directors in
grading students’ quizzes, tests and homework; supervising laboratory sessions;
proctoring tests; and leading discussion sessions. The teaching assistance task for various
international students is a demanding one. First, the TAs must create a balance between
being the teacher and expert in the course content. Second, they must alternate between
being a learner and a student, while working with and under professors (Bailey, 1983; Jia
& Bergerson, 2008). Third, TAs play the role of faculty-student liaison. TAs convey to
the professor the students’ feedback. This creates an atmosphere of understanding
between students and course director. In short, the TA facilitates the learning process and
helps the professor to administer the course to students.
Problems with which International Teaching Assistants are Confronted
ITAs have to learn what U.S.TAs take for granted. In contrast to U.S. TAs, ITAs
are confronted with two main problems, namely (1) the lack of experience in the U.S.
educational system and (2) cultural differences. As the ITAs arrive in the U.S. without an
adequate experience about the educational system, the institutions should provide them
with adequate training programs about rules, regulations, and educational technology
tools in order to make them successful assistants or instructors.
Cultural Differences. Most ITAs come from countries where they belong to one
culture but they find that diversity dominates the U.S. classroom. As the United States is
a multi-ethnic nation and multiculturalism dominates the U.S. classroom, ITAs must“plan
their lessons in such a way as to intellectually and emotionally connect with, and respect
all their students from all backgrounds” (Hutchinson, 2005, p. 73). Instructors need to
learn about educational settings such as classrooms and instructional technology
(Morrison, 1997). “The issue of diversity also features the management of diverse
students’ learning needs. An understanding of these issues is necessary in order to ease
the transitional process for international teachers” (Hutchison, 2005, p. 73). Primary
dimensions of diversity include gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical
qualities and abilities and color. Secondary dimensions of diversity include work
experience, marital status, educational background, geographic location, income,
religious background, and family attitudes. ITAs also need to deal with students as
adults, encourage students’ participation, be positive towards their behaviors, and make
effective presentations in formal classes. In fact, ITAs are passing through pedagogical
and cultural issues.
Language and Delivery Considerations. Teaching in a foreign country using
another language is challenging. Without recognizing the cultural aspects of the U.S.
classrooms, ITAs will not be able to realize the nature of their roles within the
educational system in the U.S.A. (Bailey, 1983). The dissimilarities in culture and
language can make the interaction between the U.S. students and the ITAs “complicated
and sometimes problematic” (Bailey, et al., 1984, p. 3). Thus, to protect themselves as
ITAs, they need to give handouts or use PowerPoint in order to present the content of the
lecture. Some programs explicitly require “PowerPoint use in presentations or teaching
demonstrations because it is expected to be used in the classroom, provides structure for
the students’ presentations, or simply because students like to use it” (Crumley, 2010,
ITAs Duties and Responsibilities
Instructional Plan. In some countries, a course syllabus is not required. But in
the U.S., ITAs must prepare a syllabus which serves as a contract between the ITAs and
their students. Because of environmental consciousness, many syllabi are now posted
online. In their syllabus, ITAs must include their ground rules as well as the
departmental and university policies. In addition to knowledge of conventional
pedagogical practices, ITAs must understand university and departmental standards,
regulations, and norms (Trebing, 2007). Students expect ITAs to explain the course
content in a systematic, simple and clear way. Some students “complain that their
professors are cheating them by spending more time consulting and publishing than
teaching or preparing for classes” (Levy & Rakovsky, 2006, p.737). On the first day of
class, ITAs should introduce themselves, tell their students their names and what they
prefer to be called in the classroom, and present their credentials. They need to present
their credentials to students on the first day of class. ITAs are expected to tell their
students why they are TAs and whether they are M.A. or Ph.D. students. This
communicates the message of professional relationship between the ITAs and their
students. ITAs must know that students with special needs are in every school and every
classroom in the United States (Morrison, 1997, p.166), for which reason TAs will need
to know about laws that define terms and give special rights to students (Morrison, 1997,
p. 167). Students of disability should be given special treatment and it should be
Cultural Considerations. Having a good command of English language is not
enough for ITAs, to be successful in their jobs. There are slang terms and phrases that
they might hear from students. If the ITA has consultation hours, s/he should keep the
office door open especially if they are not talking about anything confidential. ITAs can
ask their students to come in pairs during office hours. This is to avoid any sexual
harassment charges, which are prohibited by federal law. ITAs need to know that sexual
harassment is not allowed in college or any employment setting.
Clothing is a symbol which helps in defining the ITAs’ culture (Eckert, 1989).
Clothing and appearance are the most outwardly visual aspects of identity development
(Hebdige, 2002). ITAs gain “hybrid identity practices” by combining, in their clothes,
features of U.S. culture into their international cultural aspects. “ITAs who successfully
adjust to the United States university system communicate effectively in the classroom
and understand the cultural characteristics of their students, will increase the quality of
the educational opportunities, experiences and the outcomes that undergraduates receive”
(Fox and Gay,1994, p.21).
Classroom Dynamic. Based on their own cultures, ITAs may consider some
students’ behaviors as impolite, while these behaviors are acceptable in the U.S. A. In
some countries, asking questions and challenging the professor are unacceptable behavior
but in the U.S. these behaviors are valued. U.S. students do not usually show formal signs
of respect for the teacher, such as standing up when the teacher enters the classroom.
Many U.S. students are accustomed to calling instructors by their first names. In some
countries, you must call the instructor Professor, Dr., and Sir.
In some countries, students are expected to memorize what the teacher lectures. In
answering their exam questions, students must spew back out the instructor’s lectures
(Freire, 1970). But in the U.S., students can challenge authors and ideas, because they are
taught to think critically. Discussions are good in small classes.
Diversity is a fact of life in the U.S. classroom. “The issue of diversity also
features the management of diverse students’ learning needs. An understanding of these
issues is necessary in order to ease the transitional process for international teachers”
(Hutchson, 2005, p. 73). ITAs need to recognize primary dimensions of diversity
(gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical qualities and abilities, and color) and
secondary dimensions of diversity (work experience, marital status, educational
background, geographic location, income, religious background, and family attitudes).
ITAs must know student names which show that they care about their students.
They need to deal with students as adults, encourage students’ participation, and be
positive towards their behaviors. ITAs need to tell their students if they have questions
that they can ask them in class, office, or by e-mail.
Instructional Technology: In the U.S.A., more and more higher education
institutions are using new technology tools in order to enhance access to educational
opportunities that were not present prior to the Internet. ITAs need to be familiar with
distance education, as it represents the current trend in higher education. Distance
education can include several emerging technologies (Burdet, et al., 2007), including
among others, blogs, wikis, podcasts and Google docs. ITAs must know virtual
classroom, basic computer skills such as MS Word, PowerPoint, opening and saving
files, and how to use the electronic (or e-) blackboard. Online teaching and learning can
be either synchronous (happening at the same time) or asynchronous (the opposite).
Testing and Grading. ITAs must not give special treatment to one or few
students. If extra credits are offered, they must be accessible to all students. In some
countries, students are happy even when the grade are low, as long as they pass. For
example, in France, students are happy when they get 12 out of 20. In India, students are
happy when they get 60 out of 100. In the U.S., the expectations are different. ITAs need
to tell your students what to study to get an A.
ITAs must be aware of the definition, meaning and purpose of academic
dishonesty, because it helps them in complying with the U.S. education system.
Academic dishonesty is an intended performance as students use fabricated information
or unauthorized sources in an academic production (Gehring & Pavela, 1994). Academic
dishonesty also refers to "[f]orms of cheating and plagiarism that involved students
giving or receiving unauthorized assistance in an academic exercise or receiving credit
for work that is not their own" (Kibler, 1993, p. 253). In other countries, students copy
and paste ideas or information without referencing them. In the U.S., this act constitutes
academic dishonesty. ITAs must discuss with their students the risks of committing
academic dishonesty at the beginning of the semester.
Professionalism. While it is preferable to be loved than feared (Machiavelli,
2012), ITAs need to keep their relationships with their students on a professional basis at
all times in order that they can provide fair testing and grading. This makes the ITA more
of an authority and less of a friend to his or her students. Students expect to see their
grades by the end of the succeeding two class meetings. The ITAs’ grading policy must
be clear from the very first day. In some countries, the longer your paper, the higher your
grade. In the U.S., when the professors say ten pages, they mean ten pages. Some
professors will not read papers which are longer than the required number of pages. In
some countries, when students write papers, eighty percent is useless background
information. In the U.S., students have to follow certain guidelines, format, and rubric.
ITAs need to be aware of language difficulties cultural differences, rules and
regulations, and basic and new educational technology tools in order to develop and
manage a comfortable classroom atmosphere by learning about one another and
developing a cross-cultural, teacher-student relationship. Acceptance and patience are
significant to the TA-student relationship. ITAs need to avoid cultural
miscommunication, have positive attitudes, remove misunderstandings and communicate
honestly with their students. With these issues in mind, ITAs need to consider the
following in order to be effective verbal communicators and pave the way for students to
understand the lessons and course content: 1) to know your students’ names and
background, 2) to communicate with friendliness and respect with students, 3) to improve
spoken English, 4) to control the rate and volume of speech by speaking slowly and
enough volume, 5) to make eye contact when talking with students, 6) to smile, 7) to be
confident when explaining issues, course content, and lessons, 8) to know students’
educational background and experience, 9) to ask experienced professors for advice
regarding students’ excuses or complaints, and 10) to deal with students on equal basis,
including students of color, women, students with certain religious beliefs, and
ITAs need to be aware of language difficulties and cultural differences, develop a
comfortable classroom atmosphere by learning about one another and developing a cross-
cultural, teacher-student relationship. ITAs are required to care about their students’
conflicts and frustrations. Acceptance and patience are significant to the TA-student
relationship. ITAs are required to avoid cultural miscommunication, have positive
attitudes, remove misunderstandings and communicate honestly with their students.
Teaching assistantship provides benefits for both the U.S. students as well as for ITAs
studying and teaching in the United States. ITAs provide new attitudes on the curriculum
and offer international perspectives to the course content “that United States
academicians may not have considered” (Pialorsi, 1984, p. 16).
Implications of Applications of the Findings to Practice
Teaching assistants, including those from foreign countries, are at the heart of
higher education, as they assist regular faculty members in teaching courses. This paper
deals with the ways in which higher education institutions reexamine the performance,
learning, and change in the role of teaching assistants who are from other countries and
have different experiences. While ITAs need to take more responsibility for their
continuing education, higher education institutions need to provide them with
opportunities to pursue continuing education.
Recommendations for Further Research
Further research efforts can go beyond description and investigate the causal
relationship between the variables. They can also study ITAs across different universities.
Furthermore, aside from getting data only from ITAs, they can also include feedback
from the students’ perspectives.
The full list of references is available upon request from Rey Ty at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rey Ty, Ed.D. and Awni Alkarzon, Ph.D., Division of International Programs, Northern
Illinois University, DeKalb, IL 60115, email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Presented at the Research-to-Practice Conference in Adult and Higher Education,
Lindenwood University, St. Charles, MO, September 20-21, 2013.