American-style teaching covered in CELCIS graduate assistant training program

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2011 WMU international graduate assistants

Teaching international graduate assistants presentation methods, protocols, and nuances of classroom instruction in the American university system is the mission of the International Graduate Assistant Training program that has been offered through Western Michigan University's Career English Language Center for International Students since the late 1980s.

The one-week, 12-hour training program that is offered each year the week before fall semester begins was developed by CELCIS Master Faculty Specialist Mary Lu Light to help international graduate assistants prepare to teach or work with undergraduate students at WMU.

Light said the program provides students an orientation to classroom communication dynamics, training in compensating for non-native American English pronunciation, and six opportunities to practice effective classroom presentation, after which participants receive feedback from their peers and experienced university instructors.

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Light presenting a certificate to Amila Bandara, a native of Sri Lanka and an IGA in the Physics Department

Such training was an emerging field in the late 1980s, when Light tasked herself with developing a program at WMU. Content and delivery was determined by researching programs at other universities, attending related conferences, networking with colleagues in national organizations doing similar work, and by conducting research in the field to learn best practices.

“I visited several WMU departments that enrolled large numbers of graduate students to interview their supervisors,” Light said. “I was interested in hearing the complaints and problems they encountered working with international GA’s and what the departments would like them to know before putting them in classrooms.”

Working collaboratively with WMU’s graduate college and with the support of the college’s dean at the time, Dr. Shirley Scott, Light also spent one fall semester visiting classrooms to evaluate graduate assistant teaching styles and methods.

“That helped me see the major problems, and also what was working, to assist me in developing the program,” she said. “It is WMU’s responsibility to provide this training to avoid putting under-prepared international teaching assistants in front of classrooms. I thought we should be training the TAs with as much care and concern as we train our football players. Many have never spent any time in the U.S. or been in an American university. They have to make language and cultural adjustments and most don’t know the protocols for American university classes.”

Dr. Andrew Kline, an associate professor and graduate academic advisor in WMU’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said his department enrolls four to five international teaching assistants each year, who attend the CELCIS-based training program, as well as TA training offered by WMU’s graduate college. He said both programs help the TA’s learn how to be effective teachers, as well as giving them insight on how to treat students in their classes.

“The CELCIS TA training provides a transitional orientation to the American university system and teaches incoming TA’s how WMU works,” Kline said. “It also gives them a chance to practice their language and presentation skills before they have to get up in front of a classroom.”

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Ila Baker

Ila Baker, a CELCIS master faculty specialist, has taught in the IGA program since 1991 and has taken over directorship of the program from Light. She said 39 international graduate assistants representing 21 countries, who were hired to teach in one of 23 WMU departments, participated in the training session hosted prior to the beginning of the 2011-2012 academic year.

“It’s a good investment for the graduate students we enroll who teach here for a year or two,” Baker said. “These TAs typically teach freshman and general education courses, so they are working with some of our most needy students. This training program improves the quality of instruction at WMU. Some departments require their TAs to sign up for the training and some international graduate students volunteer to participate to improve their presentation skills.”

The first day of the program participants give presentations that are videotaped. They receive feedback on that presentation and make additional presentations throughout the week. Baker said you can see a significant visual improvement in their delivery and enunciation by the time they give a final presentation on the last day of the program. 

Most participants come from the engineering, chemistry, paper science, math, economics, biology and geography departments. One of the benefits they receive is that they pay in-state tuition rates and are supported and represented by WMU’s Teaching Assistant Union. Grades are not issued, but a certificate is issued to those who complete the training.

“This is a wonderful professional development opportunity I look forward to every year,” Baker said. “It allows me to witness the emergence of great teaching skills among the TAs. Over the course of the week, the TAs get better—they get a lot better, which is very gratifying as a teacher. It is an important program that contributes to the quality of instruction at WMU and that serves the TAs well because they feel more comfortable and prepared walking into the classroom.”