Recommendations for improvement to an International Teaching Assistants training program at a Boston, Massachusetts university. The Program is designed to prepare non-native English-speaking teaching assistants for instructional roles.
This Program is called the International Teaching Assistant (ITA) Training Program and is provided annually at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. The Program has been in existence over fifteen years and was developed for new doctoral students with assigned fall teaching responsibilities arriving in the United States in the late summer, before the start of fall semester. Most International Teaching Assistants (ITAs) have complete fluency or near fluency in oral and written English language.
The Program is designed to prepare non-native English speakers to teach content area classes, advise and interact with undergraduate and graduate students and grade lab reports, papers and other assignments. For many of the ITAs, a part of teaching responsibility includes an office hours consulting component for post and pre class academic support.
Due to the significant cultural educational backgrounds of the ITAs, many unique perspectives on teaching, the teacher-student relationship and classroom environment expectations are varied. Commonly, ITAs enter the training program familiar, comfortable and even attracted to a teacher-centered approach.
My role: One of six faculty; my level was one of two junior faculty – one doctoral student and myself. The four other faculty members had been teaching this Program for over fifteen years, (since origin) and had worked together to develop the course originally and as a team were responsible for modifications over the years.
The focus of this one-week International Training Assistant (ITA) Program is to guide new ITAs in developing skills for organizing content and materials preparing to present and teach content area lessons with guided instructor and peer feedback (use of video included). ITAs reflect on and write about this process, as both a learner and prospective teacher. Because of ITAs’ diverse cultural and subsequent educational backgrounds and experiences TA Training includes a component that helps them understand and adapt to the unique expectations for their role in a North American university.
Some aspects of this Program worked very well. Two parts of the ITA Program that could be modified and enhanced with careful consideration for the finer aspects of learning theory and the possibilities that these theories present.
Existing Learning Theory
In most instances aspects of Cognitive Learning Theory were evident and applied in the ITA Program design, development and delivery. Cognitive Learning Theory and its application to teaching and learning can be described in this way – a kind of thinking and problem solving where new learning is built on existing learning.
In this first segment of the ITA Program (Day One) there are multiple examples of Cognitive Learning Theory. Students use knowledge and academic proficiency in their respective content areas and combine prior experiences as a student and use this information to construct new knowledge in how to teach content. When ITAs are given direct instruction (mostly lecture with some modeling) on “how to teach” this learning occurs through assimilation – part of Cognitive Learning Theory – the process by which new knowledge is absorbed and connected to, and built on what we already know.
In large group discussions, learners get a chance to discover solutions by doing tasks that help them make sense of the learning by applying their own thinking and applying the new learning through these tasks to what they already know.
Applying content knowledge and drawing on experience as learners and applying what they’ve observed and learned, each ITA leads a class session by first distributing the syllabus document they’ve created, and taking peers through the syllabus, step by step allowing them to try out and learn from mistakes.
Issues or Problems that Might Be Addressed with Adjustments to Design and Theory
In the original ITA training program design, more than 15 years ago, the approach seemed to view the learner as needing and waiting to be filled with knowledge on how to teach; this notion seems to have heavily influenced the development and design of this Program.
What theory could be used as an alternate approach?
Addressing social needs – including a more knowledgeable other reference: Mentoring. Vygotasky (1978) tells us that addressing the social needs of the learners deserves careful consideration in the learning design.
Constructivism – the learner brings past experiences and cultural factors to a current situation and each person has a different interpretation and construction of the knowledge process.
Mentoring – Built into the ITA Program Design Broeckleman-Post and Ruiz-Mesa (2018) point out that usually TAs are the first instructors that new students interact with. This reinforces the importance that as part of ITA training, new instructors are sent into the classroom with a sense of confidence and credibility as teachers. Broeckleman-Post and Ruiz-Mesa (2018) advise that one way for mentorship to work in ITA Program design is to provide opportunities for returning ITAs to lead training sessions and model teaching practices for new ITAs, with the course instructor as facilitator of the overall learning experience and provide supervision and logistical guidance rather than direct instruction.
Clear modeling of and highlighted distinction between teacher centered and student-centered learning and addressing cultural expectations and norms around this.
Having been selected for these highly competitive ITA positions, ITAs come to their appointments with proven evidence of deep and substantiated content area knowledge and academic proficiency, but as Broeckelman-Post and Ruiz-Mesa (2018) caution, they often lack exposure to and development of knowledge and theory about how students learn the content.
MIT lecturer A.C. Kemp (2016) tells us that ITA training faculty should attempt to support learners when she recommends that faculty and mentors who work closely with ITAs should address two areas: one area is guiding ITAs in understanding what student-teaching is and the value of using this approach in learning; the other is to provide ITAs with models of how to teach this way, highlighting the benefits to this approach.
With the ITA training program used in this paper, there are cascading factors. Because ITAs are often the first to have direct interaction with new students in the classroom or learning setting and are often culturally new to educational norms in the United States, especially careful consideration to the social needs of the learners (ITAs) is critical. In this example, there were aspects that were overlooked opening the possibilities for ITAs entering the classroom and student interactions underprepared and without mentorship.
Prior learning and experience along with social, learning and cultural experiences all play a part in how learners make sense of the world. Including in constructivist learning in this adds in the building that happens in people’s minds when they learn and how this connects to the learners’ development of understanding – each learner interprets experiences and information in light of their existing knowledge.
We can therefore expect that ITAs bring their experiences culturally, socially and educationally, to their roles in U.S. universities. We cannot expect however, that without critical components in training such as a foundation in understanding and seeing first hand student centered teaching, and providing structured mentorship, that the ITA enters the teaching role fully prepared, affecting not only their own experiences, but those of the students they teach.
Ashavskaya, E. (2015). International teaching assistants’ experiences in the U.S. classrooms: Implications for practice. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Vol.15, (2) April 56-69. doi:10.14434/josotl.v15i2.12947
Broeckelman-Post, M. and Ruiz-Mesa, K. (2018). Journal of Communication Pedagogy, Vol. 1(1). Retrieved from: https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/jcp/vol1/iss1/16/
Kemp, A.C. MIT [Open Courseware] (n.d.). Retrieved May 1, 2019 from: https://ocw.mit.edu/resources/res-21g-001-the-user-friendly-classroom-spring 2016/instructor-insights/user-experience-as-applied-to-international-ta-training/
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