Preparing to teach an English class for international graduate students!

Recently I sent a long email to (hopefully) my future TA for the Statistics Course I will be teaching over the fall. She is an amazing student with a clear understanding of the material so it makes imminent sense to pick her as a TA. But, she is also an international student and the prospect of teaching a course is probably a bit intimidating. While I was thinking about it I reflected on my own experience as a fresh TA back in 2006 (damn I am getting old) and tried to give her some advice. That email turned out to be quite extensive and in the spirit of “never waste a good write up” I am presenting it here as a general advice to graduate students that are about to TA for a class.

It goes without saying that there is much more to teaching than just being good on the subject and the process of learning how to teach better is beneficial for all people involved and very rewarding. The feeling of accomplishment when a student “finally gets it” because of the way you explained it is indescribable. So here are a few tricks to help jump start a successful TA experience.

First of all you should try to improve your English fluency. I know this sounds weird, but it is actually something that students get hung up on and claim it affects their understanding (unbelievable right??? 🙂 ). When I first came over from Greece my English was … well … terrible, and I noticed immediately that it had an adverse effect on my students. I also noticed that if I could only explain the idea in Greek I would do a much better job. And I felt that this was bad, since my inability to speak a foreign language properly, should not hinder the understanding of my students. So I made a conscious effort to improve my “every day” English using the following tricks:

  1. I started reading lots and lots of English papers. Mostly for my research (math) but also for other things, like philosophy, social issues, etc. Every time I would find a word I didn’t know, I looked it up and tried to use it in sentences until I actually mastered it.
  2. I started listening to podcasts. NPR was a great source, and I also found a few computer science oriented ones which helped me learn a few things about that field as well, killing two birds with one stone, since I was always fascinated by computer science but I never had formal training in it. I used them as something like background noise instead of lets say music.
  3. I implemented English ONLY days. I find that interacting with English speakers is the best way to practice but then when I talked to some of my Greek friends or my family back home my English fluency would deteriorate quickly (that happens to me now especially if I spend a substantial amount of time in Greece for vacation). So I would have days that I would only speak English even if I was conversing with my Greek friends. I am glad they accommodated my weird behavior … guess I have some really good friends there!

If I could do it I believe everybody can. And it actually helped in multiple ways, dropping most of my funny Greek accent was definitely a side bonus.

The second thing is to try to improve your understanding of the subject. Basically, when you finish the course you prove that you have a perfect understanding of what was taught. But in order to teach a class you need to have a more broad understanding of the subjects discussed. This way you will be able to answer questions and anticipate where the problems might occur. To do that you can try the following:

  1. Review the book cover to cover. Get a physical copy of it. Underline, comment, do whatever it takes.
  2. Review any recordings on the subject, youtube videos, classes from Khan accademy etc. In my case you can review the panopto recordings from the class. Pay attention to the questions asked, if possible, and see how they were answered.
  3. Create a set of homework problems that match the homework problems for each lab. Thinking of what to test and how is a great way of understanding what is important in a course.

The third thing you need to do is make sure you know all the rules and regulations around teaching a course. You need to know/complete:

  1. The FERPA regulations found here:
  2. The Sexual Misconduct Training found here:

It also helps if you know how to create, adapt and manipulate Moodle. There are available courses for that but it is easier to learn by doing. Still here is the relevant link:

Furthermore the Graduate school offers complementary training programs for teaching. I was unable to find a link to those but I have seen emails from graduate school pointing to them. There are many more things that you can try, but this email is already too long perhaps even enough for a blog post … wait…!

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