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Teaching Assistance from TAs

Writer(s): 
Yuta Kawamura, The International University of Kagoshima Graduate School

This issue’s Teaching Assistance takes the form of a case study in which Yuta Kawamura, a graduate student teaching assistant, describes how TAs can have beneficial but also negative effects on student motivation in college-level language courses.

The English skill levels of next year’s cohort of university entrance exam applicants to Japanese universities will likely be wider than previous years. This is because universities are struggling to maintain enrollment numbers and so are increasing the number of overseas applicants and allowing lower-scoring students to pass their entrance examinations.

Teachers will therefore have to seek new and more efficient ways to contend with mixed-level classes once this diverse range of students comes through the door. At first blush, teachers would likely want to adapt to this change by decreasing the number of students in each class or by creating a wider range of classes to match the various levels of ability. Facing decreased budgets, however, administrators will be hard-pressed to increase class sizes and offer a one-size-fits-all open class.

A more creative response to the issue for institutions that allow just about every applicant to enroll is to implement new ways to support underperforming students by bringing in teaching assistants, student assistants, and learning assistants. Universities that are able to attract overseas students by offering content-based courses taught solely in English could also benefit from hiring TAs to support the teacher. While TAs can be vital sources of support for teachers, knowing how to manage them can be tricky. For many TAs, the tasks of planning, organizing, motivating, and controlling classroom environments can be overwhelming. The author shares several tips on making the partnership work.

Teaching Assistance from TAs

Yuta Kawamura,

The International University of Kagoshima Graduate School

Typically TAs set up the electronic equipment and move desks, chairs and whiteboards for a particular language teaching activity. The TA can be asked to take responsibility for playing music, setting up realia used by a teacher following the direct method, distributing handouts and organizing mid-term examination papers. These are essential tasks in the smooth running of lessons to ensure that when students arrive they can get on with learning as quickly as possible (Hodge, 2015). Regular duties include taking attendance, administering faculty development surveys, and disseminating and checking short tests. At my institution the TA cannot grade or evaluate students but they can participate in fieldwork and internship programs. The TA can be asked to summarize and create supporting teaching materials to help students to understand the lesson at hand.

The TA can also take on more important roles in the language classroom when the teacher seeks more assistance and shares lesson plans. In English as a Foreign Language (EFL) classes for students with diverse levels of communicative ability, TAs can be asked by the instructor to assist students who scored low or high on placement tests. Students with low language proficiency levels may need additional assistance to keep up to speed with their peers. Those at the high end sometimes need motivational support to keep on learning. However, I am wary of this suggestion because Blatchford, Russell, & Webster (2012) found that underperforming students who received a lot of TA support made significantly less academic progress than similar students who received little or no TA support. The researchers, based at the UCL Institute of Education and the University of East London, suggested that the principal teacher should be spending more time with students at the low end, otherwise they could be negatively affected by the very intervention intended to help them.

Other non-traditional roles for the TA in the university language classroom can occur when the teacher doesn’t speak the students’ native language. In these situations some lower level students may fall behind in the class. A Japanese-speaking TA can provide individual assistance without disrupting the teacher’s approach. High schools in Japan generally only have Japanese students, but university classrooms are more diverse, with increasing numbers of students from Asia who speak a variety of languages. Foreign TAs can provide support in their native languages.

Foreign students often work as TAs, but their working hours should not exceed 40 hours in one month and they are subject to Japan’s Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act. Hourly salaries for TAs in Japan range from 1,000 to 2,000 yen, commensurate with one’s academic degree. These jobs provide graduate students with training opportunities that can help them become researchers and develop leadership roles in university education.

I was hired to be a TA for a comparative culture course with 45 Japanese and Chinese students. The course was taught entirely in English by a native English speaker using an imported textbook printed only in English. Freshmen majoring in intercultural studies and music registered for the course. The music majors who signed up seemed underprepared for college level English.

Before the course got under way I consulted with the instructor about the syllabus. During the first class, I kept two goals in mind. The first was to alleviate stressful situations for students and the second was to provide a behind-the-scenes communication link to the teacher. For example, I walked around the classroom and momentarily stood beside each student while the the instructor was teaching at the front of the class. At that time, I asked the student simple questions such as “How are you doing?” or, “It’s a good day, isn’t it?” With this rapport, I would follow up with: “Do you understand that word on the whiteboard?” or, “Do you understand this sentence in the textbook?” I approached each student gently. This doesn’t mean the TA is only helping students to learn. I felt the TA is expected to reduce stress and disruption in class. I achieved the second goal by replying to the students’ questions using only English or both English and Japanese. These music students didn’t appear to understand this college-level English class, so I planned to help them using fundamental junior high school level English. They have to pass other English class credits required for their university diploma, so as their TA, I thought I could help them settle into this all-English language class.

The instructor began the first lesson using task-based methodology and communicative techniques. He showed the class a picture and asked one music major , “What are they doing?” The student froze. The teacher had pointed to a picture with various couples holding hands. The intercultural studies majors could easily answer, however they spoke in scarcely audible voices because they didn’t have the confidence to speak up or didn’t want to embarrass the music major student. In this situation, I felt the most supportive role of the TA would be to intervene and help individuals to understand and complete tasks without stress.

When I help English majors, I try to help certain students to fully express themselves in English. Some highly competent students tell me that they are afraid the teacher might say “Pardon?” or, “Can you say that again?” when they try to question or answer in English. Especially if the teacher is speaking in front of a large class it can be embarrassing. Students say that situations like this make them feel like “I can’t speak English.” However, the teacher can’t always stop the flow of a large class to individually teach one student. Most teachers need to stick to the approved syllabus. 

When university students can’t understand what their teacher expects them to do or what a particular section of the textbook is about, they ask me directly for help. Occasionally looking at me with an exasperated look of frustration, I feel they are just begging me for the correct answer. I tend to spoon-feed and help these students individually, so they can get the task at hand done quickly and to help keep things going smoothly for the instructor. At times, however, this inhibits the student’s motivation to learn and study. It certainly goes against the intended effect of an instructor who likes giving hints or vague directions on how to solve problems to get students to think more creatively. To prevent this mismatch from happening too often it is important to create a real teaching partnership between the TA and the instructor.

Although TAs should not deviate from the way the class is conducted by the teacher, at some crucial times it seems important to me to speak in Japanese or to build the confidence of some students. It takes time for some students to realize that their English is in fact good enough to be understood and to believe in themselves from the bottom of their hearts. I enjoy helping these students on a one-to-one basis in English. As a TA, I try not to get into the position of only giving answers or translating into Japanese what the teacher has just said in English. I try to encourage students to ask questions or to answer the teacher in English. I avoid undermining the confidence of students. By reducing their worries I can help them to take ownership of their language learning. The TA and teacher can complement each other’s roles, especially when the TA is offered the opportunity to play a key role in teaching students.

References

Blatchford, P., Russell, A., & Webster, R. (2012). Reassessing the impact of teaching assistants: How research challenges practice and policy. Oxon, UK: Routledge.

Hodge, K. (2015, April 1). How teaching assistants can make a real difference in the classroom. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2015/apr/01/teaching-assista...

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