Practical Tips for New Graduate Student Instructors Who Have Been Educated Internationally

Elizabeth Axelson and Pamela Bogart

English Language Institute, University of Michigan

Note: While this material is framed for a new GSI audience, the topics and suggested strategies could be relevant and useful for any U-M GSI or faculty member who was educated outside the U.S.

Everyone taking on the role of a GSI for the first time is embarking on a journey into new territory. You may be both excited and challenged by this opportunity to interact intensively with a culturally diverse range of students in the classes you teach. Your students also may be feeling something similar about taking a class from you. As instructors in GSI language courses at the UM English Language Institute, we have witnessed the success of many international graduate students as GSIs. In what follows, we will identify five dimensions in which classroom practices and communication patterns display quite a bit of variation both within the University of Michigan and from a global perspective, and we offer some practical tips for navigating these factors in ways that provide opportunities for success. We are confident that by working with you, your students will develop a more sophisticated skill set for communicating with a diverse range of people throughout their lives, and will gain new ways of looking at the material in your course.

Varied Backgrounds and Diversity

You may be considering how to handle the fact that students in the same class will have highly variable knowledge and skills. Public school systems in the U.S. are decentralized, so your undergraduates will have had widely diverging educational experiences. You’ll also have students from across the globe. Individual students will also have different motivations for taking your course. 

Suggestions

  • Conduct an early survey about course goals and prior relevant learning. It can work well to set this up as a handout where each student interviews a partner about their experience and interests, using questions that you’ve scripted in advance, such as “What are your reasons for taking this class?” You may also wish to ask more specific questions about background knowledge to establish the range of background knowledge students in each section do and don’t have. Such information could be self-reported in this survey, or you could give an ungraded quiz.

  • Frequently use classroom assessment techniques, quick activities to tap into how well students are understanding specific material. These techniques are usually anonymous. In some fields, electronic “clickers” or mobile apps are an integral part of each lesson plan, giving ongoing feedback to the GSI about the degree of overall student understanding.

  • Group students in order to mix ability levels, while contemplating the potential experience of taking care to not isolate individual students who may be isolated by an identity they hold, such as by race, gender, or language background, or other identities they hold. (For additional guidance on forming student groups, see this CRLT handout). Within groups, make sure that everyone has a clear role to play. 

  • Student expectations about instructor availability may be different from yours (and vary quite widely depending on student background), so it’s helpful to be clear about topics such as:  how they should communicate with you, how to utilize office hours, and when you might be available for questions outside of your regular office hours (see Learning and Teaching During Office Hours). You may also wish to remind students after the first few class sessions when your office hours are. When in your office hours, be prepared with a friendly welcome. Save some time, if possible, in the ten minutes after each class session for incidental questions from students.

Communication

You may be considering how to ensure that your students understand you and that you understand them. Together, you and your students will bring multiple varieties of English to the classroom. Variation includes not only word choices, grammar, and accent, but also how everyone uses language to realize their communication goals, including for example degree of directness, ways of framing feedback, how to get a turn in a discussion, or how long to wait after asking the class a question.

Suggestions

  • Provide information in multiple modes, for example, a spoken explanation complemented by a diagram, with key words labeled, and a handout that facilitates note-taking.

  • Bring up the topic of giving and getting clarification. Open conversation on this topic can generate ideas about how to ensure that two-way communication is successful. Here are some suggested phrases:

    • “If you think I’ve made a mistake or something isn’t clear, please just ask me.” 

    • “If I hear that you’ve made a mistake or if something you’ve said isn’t clear to me, what methods of feedback would you find most helpful?”.

    • “Understanding what you say is important to me. If I don’t understand you, I’ll keep asking for clarification until I get it. Others can help me out, too. If you don’t understand me, please ask me for clarification, too.”

  • Ask for clarification by repeating a key word in a student question with rising tone, or by paraphrasing what you think you understood. Each of these strategies should trigger the student to use new wording, which is generally more helpful than the same wording repeated again.

  • Structure lessons to emphasize key content to remember, using strategies such as an agenda at the start of class that you return to at each step in the lesson, or a different color font for main topics on your visuals (see the Laboratory Overview section of Strategies for Effective Teaching in the Laboratory Class for additional ideas).

  • Send a survey to students after your 3rd or 4th meeting with them, asking for ideas on how to optimize communication in your section. For example, “Now that you have a sense of this class, I’d like your best ideas about how we can optimize communication. What are your suggestions for ways I can make sure that you can easily understand me, and vice-versa?” Summarize suggestions and share with the class which ones you’ll implement, and why.

  • Be open to trying new strategies of communication, even unfamiliar ones, when you learn that students prefer them. At the same time, don’t be afraid to say no to requests and suggestions that you do not agree with. When you choose not to accommodate students’ preferences, be polite and explain why. For example, you could say, “I understand that you prefer to talk together to clarify your understanding when I’m explaining something, but that distracts me and other students sitting nearby. So please raise your hand if you have a question or need clarification. And I will give you time to talk together when I’m not lecturing.”

  • Cultivate a sense of humor about misunderstandings, recognizing that they are great opportunities for learning and establishing a shared classroom community. Think of misunderstandings as opportunities, not failures.

  • Do what you can to become more confident. If you do not feel fully confident to say what you want when you want and to understand what is said to you, you may find these resources helpful:

Rapport

You may be considering how to establish a positive teaching relationship or “rapport” with and among students. 

Reflection and Suggestions

  • Expectations about student-instructor interactions can vary significantly across cultures, institutions, and individuals, so it’s useful to think deliberately about how you want to approach interacting with your students.  For instance, how friendly and informal or strict and distant do you want to be as an instructor? What are the range of expectations your students might have about your classroom persona and their interactions with you?

  • It is possible to develop a strong academic relationship with students through a variety of interpersonal and instructional strategies. Both informal and formal classroom styles, for example, can foster a productive teaching-learning relationship. Further, teacher behaviors that may be perceived by some students as friendly may be perceived by others as overbearing. Here are some elements that GSIs we’ve worked with have noted:

    • Consider how you use non-verbal communication in the rapport-building process, for example

      • use of eye contact when speaking with students

      • use of facial expressions, including smiling or nodding

      • use of space in the room, such as creating a circle of chairs, teaching from the front of the room, or moving toward students when listening to them speak

    • Consider your use of student names. Learning students’ names can be an important element of rapport-building: a sign of respect, inclusion, or investment in a student’s learning experience. Remembering lots of new names, particularly those from a different language, can be tricky. Here are some suggestions to help attach names to people:

      • Place a small sign with students’ names on their desks or tables at the start of the semester (this can also help students learn one another’s names)

      • Use the Wolverine Access Picture Roster to take attendance or grade student participation

      • Ask students what they wish to be called in class

      • Names have so many language origins that their pronunciation is often unpredictable; it can be useful to have students introduce themselves for several class periods so you can hear the pronunciation more than once. It is equally important for students to learn to say and remember your name, so spending some time on this during the first days of class is valuable.

    • Consider your use of personal pronouns (e.g., she, he, they). For some background on why personal pronouns have become an important element of communication on college campuses, as well as examples of what this might mean in class, this resource from the Swarthmore Intercultural Center and this CRLT handout on pronouns in the classroom

    • Here are some strategies for respectfully identifying what pronouns your students wish you to use when referring to them: 

      • Note in your Wolverine Access roster any personal pronouns that students have listed.

      • Provide a means (on your early survey about names and background, for example) for students to tell you privately what pronouns they wish you to use. 

      • Some classes and meetings now invite everyone at the table to share their name, major (if declared), and pronouns (if they wish to). Observe what procedures appear to be prevalent in your departmental culture.

  • Use icebreakers (i.e., brief activities that everyone participates in) early in the semester to help foster a positive learning community where students feel socially secure.  For some examples, see this CRLT blog on icebreakers.

  • Conversations can also be a powerful mechanism to build rapport. One way to encourage one-on-one conversations with students is to coax them into office hours. You might, for example, set up a reason for every student to come to your office hours early in the term. (If individual meetings are too difficult to schedule given the number of students you teach, you could invite them in small groups. Virtual meetings can also offer additional flexibility for meeting with students.) Rationales for meeting could include discussing their first quiz, exam, or paper, or talking about ideas for an end-of-term project. Such meetings provide a chance to get to know students and show that you care about them as individuals. One-on-one conversations are a powerful way for you and your students to familiarize yourselves with the versions of English that you each speak. In such conversations, you can ask how the course is going for them, where students are from, what they are studying, what other activities they are involved in, and similar questions.

Respect

You may be considering how to foster a respectful classroom environment and how to handle any disrespect that may arise. This is a challenging aspect of teaching regardless of an instructor’s background even for very experienced teachers, and it can be further complicated by issues like a classroom in which people speak different varieties of English and have various cultural experiences and expectations. For example, is student chit-chat in class while the instructor is giving an explanation within the bounds of a respectful classroom environment? GSIs and students alike will have differing perspectives on this question, many of them culturally rooted. 

Suggestions for promoting a respectful classroom

  • Try to identify and question your own assumptions about what appropriate student behavior looks like. This introspection can create a set of questions to talk over with students, providing fruitful starting points for both personal and class reflection.

  • Establish and follow ground rules for class participation that encourages listening carefully, being polite and inclusive, and being honest if anyone is offended (see Guidelines for class participation).

  • Use strategies for creating rapport (a positive relationship) with and among your students as a means to increase student investment in mutual respect. See suggestions for rapport-building on this document on setting a tone for an inclusive learning environment

  • Share your expertise with students on the first day of class to establish that you are knowledgeable and to build credibility. You might explain your own research experiences, personal experiences learning course material, and interests. Some GSIs also talk about their experience learning the content of the course and what significance it has had for them.

    • Physics: “So, when I was in high school, I had the most amazing Physics teacher. We did these really cool experiments which revealed to me the mysteries of the tiniest building blocks of all the things around us, and how the solid world is actually constantly in motion. Even though calculus didn’t come that easily to me, I majored in Physics in college, and it was totally worth learning the calculus. Now, I get to be here as a graduate student, doing cutting-edge work that will shape the future of sustainable energy. I’m really looking forward to working with you this semester, and sharing my love of Physics with you.”

    • Psychology: “I really enjoy working in the field of Psychology, in part because it touches every aspect of our lives. This semester, we’ll get to examine dozens of these impacts together as we explore all that the field tells us about our world. Right now, for example, I’m researching how people from different cultures perceive or ignore the contextual background in visual images, which relates to audience-specific marketing. You’ll be able to devise your own real research question by the time we get to the end of this course.”

  • Seek opportunities to offer an additional perspective on course material explicitly because of your global background.

  • Try projecting confidence even when you may not actually be feeling confident. For example, this might mean using a louder voice, maintaining eye contact, avoiding nervous laughter, feeling free to tell students you’ll investigate the answer to a question and report back later, or practicing in advance so that you don’t have to hold and look at notes on paper. Think about other contexts in your life where you feel or appear confident, and imagine how those could translate into your role as an instructor.

  • Demonstrate that you care about student learning by obviously being very prepared for class:  e.g., having appropriate visuals and activities, arriving early to greet students and set up visuals before class starts, and providing an agenda at the start of each class (see Strategies for Effective Lesson Planning).

Suggestions for handling instances of disrespect and hostility

Despite your best efforts to create a respectful and engaging classroom environment, students will bring a range of behaviors and expectations to each classroom setting.

  • When disruptions do occur, focus on handling those that actually distract you or that may distract other students. As for how to handle disruptions, suggestions and resources can be found on this page on Disrespect and Disruption in the College Classroom.  You might also find relevant suggestions on this page on constructing and maintaining authority in inclusive classrooms

  • Speak privately with students about any classroom behaviors that are disrupting other students’ learning or your ability to teach. When doing so, display respect and goodwill by asking their perspective on the behavior you want to talk about. Perhaps the student has an unexpected problem or different expectations about classroom norms that would explain the behavior, and you could talk together to find a less distracting solution. Begin by stating your understanding of what is happening, and get confirmation or clarification, as in “So what you’re saying is …?” or “Do you mean that …?” or “It sounds to me like you are angry. Can you explain to me what is making you feel that way?”

  • Check with a variety of people with different institutional roles for possible interpretations of behavior that surprises or troubles you or your students. Also, find out who you can go to for guidance in your teaching department (e.g. a course coordinator, a head GSI, a Graduate Student Mentor) and on campus (e.g., CRLT, for navigating teaching issues, or ELI, for navigating language issues as a GSI).

  • Ask your departmental GSM (Graduate Student Mentor) or a CRLT or ELI consultant to observe your class and brainstorm strategies with you. To request CRLT consultations visit this website: http://www.crlt.umich.edu/consultations-teaching. For links to ELI GSI consulting services, see the ELI’s GSI Resources page at http://www.lsa.umich.edu/eli/gsiprogram.

  • Connect with a support network. Conflicts with students and experiences of disrespect as a teacher can sometimes feel very challenging and detract significantly from the joys we hope you otherwise find in teaching. The previous two suggestions (seeking guidance in your department and requesting an observation of your class) both provide ways to make sure you don’t feel alone in facing a distressing situation.  In addition to utilizing such supports specifically focused on teaching, you can leverage the range of resources for students facing challenges that the University setting offers. Depending on the situation, you might find it helpful to reach out to the University’s CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services), professionals at OSCR (the Office of Student Conflict Resolution) or the Rackham Student Life area, or organizations focused specifically on supporting international students (e.g., Graduate Rackham International, or GRIN, or various international student associations, a list of which is maintained by the International Center). Finding the right support can help you manage the experience of disrespect and keep your focus on student learning and your professional development as an educator. 

Conclusion

A common thread unifying our suggestions is the power of demonstrating to our students that we care about them as learners and as individual people. We have witnessed dozens of very successful GSIs who are still not satisfied with their own English language fluency, but who are effective and well-liked teachers because they work hard to forge positive rapport with their students. Doing so establishes an environment of mutual respect and trust, an environment in which all parties are more likely to display patience and engage in the social risk-taking needed to ensure successful teaching and learning. In one study, Okpala & Ellis (2005) found that “caring for students and their learning” (p. 377) was the most highly valued characteristic of college teachers among students sampled, beyond even teaching skill itself.

Many instructors (including the two of us) report feeling much more confident and comfortable after the first couple of weeks of every term, after making use of those early days to get to know each new group of students and to develop a warm and productive relationship with them. We hope that you will experience the same in your first semester of teaching at the University of Michigan, and throughout your teaching career.

References 

Okpala, C. O., & Ellis, R. (2005). The perceptions of college students on teacher quality: A focus on teacher qualifications. Education 126(2), 374-383.

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