Tips for Surviving as an International Teaching Assistant

contributed by Metis Hasipek, Biological Sciences Teaching Assistant

Some international graduate students are worried when they learn that they are required to teach. This may be caused by a lack of teaching experience as well as by a lack of confidence in communicating in another language. By following these simple tips, you will not only find yourself more confident about teaching but you may also find teaching to be an enjoyable experience.

Work to Communicate Clearly:

  1. Introduce yourself clearly. It is important to introduce yourself at the beginning of the course. Let your students know that you are coming from a different place/culture and your native language is not English. Tell them a little bit about yourself and your country.
  2.  Students may not be familiar with different accents. Give students time to adjust to your accent. Let students know that if they have any difficulty understanding you because of your accent, they can ask for clarification at any time. Don't just say it, though, mean it: if they ask for explanations, don't get offended. Help your students understand what you really mean or try to explain it in a different way. In a short time, they will adjust and feel more comfortable asking you questions. Likewise, ask your students to remember that, to you, they also have an accent. Model the appropriate way to ask for repetition or clarification of what has been said.  
  3. Search for websites for correct pronunciations. If you have difficulty or lack the confidence to pronounce certain words, use websites such as that provide both pronunciation and definitions. You can also choose to write the words on the board and let one of the students help you pronounce it correctly. 
  4. Use visual aids when explaining difficult subjects. If you have a hard time explaining certain experiments or concepts, use visual aids as often as you can. PowerPoint slide shows, Youtube videos, and drawings can help your students to better understand the concepts and adjust to differences in pronunciation. 
  5. Prepare an outline for your students. This will make your lectures easier to follow. You can even leave blanks for them to fill in; this also encourages them to be active in their learning.
  6. Encourage your students to ask questions. They may not feel comfortable asking you questions. So, when your students ask questions encourage them by saying "excellent question" or "thanks for reminding me of this important point".

Adjust to a New Culture:
Give yourself time to know your students and American culture. It is not only difficult for your students to adjust to you, it can also be difficult for you to get used to a new culture. The Ohio State University Center for the Advancement of Teaching suggests, "You will find that in some ways, U.S. culture is very similar to your own, while in other ways, there are fundamental differences between this country and your home. Reflecting on and understanding these similarities and differences are important. Doing so will help you have more accurate expectations of your students and of your interactions with them".

  1. Remind yourself that the culture is different than what you are used to and certain things may not be interpreted the same way. For example, chewing gum in class may be considered disrespectful in your culture, but it may not mean anything in this new culture. Try not to take new behaviors personally.
  2. Talk to other TAs about what American students are like and what you should expect from them in the classroom and vice versa. 
  3. Participate in events around campus and the city to expose yourself to new foods, forms of entertainment, communication, etc.
  4. Visit the Office of International Programs to meet a Cultural Ambassador at Duquesne who can help you navigate and understand your environment.
  5. Be clear about your expectations. Make sure that your students understand what you expect from them in the class. You will eliminate the difficulties in the future if you set your rules at the beginning.

Final Thoughts:
Think of teaching as another way of learning a new language and adjusting to a new culture. Even if you don't like teaching, or you are not planning to teach in your future career, think of teaching as a learning experience. Success in a new social setting requires strong communication skills. So, if you learn how to communicate with your students, you will also learn how to apply this skill to another aspect of your life. This skill may help you communicate better with your future colleagues or even with your boss. You may also find teaching more enjoyable if you think it as a way of practicing your communication skills and getting acclimated to your new setting.

Additional Resources for ITAs:
Visit the Center for Teaching Excellence for a consultation. Call 412.396.5177 or email to schedule an appointment.

On the Web:

In Print:

  • Sarkisian, Ellen. Teaching American Students: A Guide for International Faculty And Teaching Assistants in Colleges And Universities. Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning.
  • Pica, Teresa, Gregory A. Barnes, and Alexis Gerard Finger. Teaching Matters: Skills and Strategies for International Teaching Assistants. Heinle & Heinle Publishing.