One of the great pleasures of college life for all members of the campus community is getting to know people from across the country and around the world. Students who may never have had the opportunity to venture far beyond their hometowns suddenly interact with people who possess different cultural backgrounds, values, religions, gender preferences, languages, and ethnic backgrounds.

Students may, without realizing it, demonstrate certain biases or judgments about instructors (and their fellow students) who differ from them.

It may be a good idea to very briefly share a few interesting points about where you grew up, particularly if you do not seem “like a Midwesterner.” At any time during the semester, however, resist the urge to reveal too much personal information. It is, after all, personal. In addition, students may not want to know that much about one of their instructors. 

If you wonder what is appropriate to share about your personal background or current life, ask yourself, “If I tell my students this, will it serve a specific teaching-and-learning purpose related to this course?” In many cases, the answer will be “no.” 

International teaching assistants and instructors may face special challenges in the American classroom, not only because of their own secondary education perceptions and experiences but also because of the cultural knowledge and assumptions of their American students.

Telling students something interesting about where you grew up or your own experiences as a student in your country can relieve them and you of anxiety and also be an insightful “learning moment” for your students. Occasionally, language differences cause misunderstandings in the classroom. A few tips might help avoid frustration for both you and your students:

  • Adjust expectations—American education emphasizes independent thinking, creativity, and active involvement by students in the classroom and even in course development.

  • Students respond well to enthusiasm for the subject and for teaching. They like to be encouraged, particularly when wrestling with an especially difficult intellectual challenge.

  • If you think language might be an issue, let your students know that you will do your best to make sure you understand them and vice versa.

  • Invite students to politely let you know if they do not understand you, and tell them you also might ask them to repeat a word or phrase.

  • Use the minute paper (see Basic Principles of Teaching) to check whether students really understand what you have said.

  • Write your main points and any course related vocabulary on the board at the beginning of class and as the words come up during discussion.

  • Confirm your understanding of a student’s comment or question by repeating what they 10 have said. Then phrase it in another way and ask if that is a correct representation of the student’s comments.

  • Students cannot use your accent as an excuse for not learning the course material or to justify their poor performance.

  • Observe American instructors and classes to better understand how teachers and students interact appropriately in this country. Nonverbal communication also varies across cultures. For example, in American universities, presenters are expected to make eye contact with their audience. This is not necessarily true in schools in other countries. In addition, college students in the United States are encouraged to raise their hands and ask questions, even in the middle of a lecture. In other societies, such behavior is considered extremely rude and disrespectful of the lecturer’s age and position. 

  • Watch for nonverbal communication behaviors involving speed of speech, volume and tone of voice, eye contact, facial expressions, and head and hand movements. Unnecessary or exaggerated expressions or gestures can distract and even confuse students.

  • Invite an experienced TA or faculty member to observe you “teaching” a brief mock class and provide you feedback before the semester begins.

  • Contact the Center for Teaching or English as a Second Language Program for more ideas and resources.