I’d Rather be a Student Assistant than a Teaching Assistant

Nguyen Binh Anh Thu

The author of this issue’s Teaching Assistance column vibrantly debates the differences between working as a Student Assistant and as a Teaching Assistant at a Japanese university. Hailing from Hanoi, Nguyen Binh Anh Thu came to Japan in October 2013 to enroll in Kyushu Japanese Language School. After 18 months of study she entered a university in Japan. In her second year of undergraduate studies in teaching Japanese as a foreign language, she obtained an N1-level certificate in Japanese language skills. Fluent in three languages, Anh Thu is currently studying for a master’s degree in American Literature.

In addition to taking courses and doing research at graduate school, I am working two part-time jobs. I am an SA (Student Assistant) and a TA (Teaching Assistant) for 3 subjects with supervision from different teachers.

I have found that the role of the SA is more challenging than that of a TA. In my role as a SA, I get to provide support to students in a classroom setting. It is an opportunity to teach students who are dynamic, enthusiastic and eager. I help students to find direction and focus on their studies, which can have an immediate and lifelong impact. In my role as TA, I have to support the teacher. As a graduate teaching assistant, I thought that I could teach undergraduate students. However, in reality I am helping the professors who are doing the actual teaching of undergraduate courses.

Part-time jobs for SAs are usually offered to undergraduate students rather than graduate students. My supervisor, however, pointed out that an SA would be useful in her class of 14 Japanese students and 4 Chinese students. She recommended that I accept the SA job to help the Chinese students because they couldn’t speak Japanese well enough to follow the syllabus. When I heard that, I replied “Why me? I am not Chinese. I am not Japanese. I am Vietnamese. I can’t talk with them in Chinese. I can’t interpret for them when they don’t understand instructions in Japanese.” But my supervisor replied that I needn’t worry, I wouldn’t have to speak any Chinese with them. As a foreign student, perhaps I could empathize with their feelings better than a Japanese student could do. And if a Chinese student were to be the SA, the students might talk only in Chinese. The Chinese students have to improve their Japanese ability, and the teacher was prepared to teach them Japanese. So after this convoluted conversation, I accepted to work as an SA.

I am glad I accepted the role of SA. There are 2 SAs in one class. My co-SA is a 2nd year Japanese student. We share the work. The students were fresh out of high school so they did not know each other. The goal of the class is to help the 18 new students get used to university life. We encourage the Chinese students to interact with Japanese students, which is difficult for international students to do because of the language barrier. Therefore we play games so the students could get to know each other.

To learn how to be a SA, I attend a training workshop with other SAs once a month. It is organized by an outside consulting company contracted by the university. This training consumes a lot of time. At the workshop, a trainer explains various ways to support freshmen. The stated goal of the consultants is for us to achieve full attendance in our classes, and to prevent freshmen from dropping out of university. After exchanging information about the problems we face, we are given homework to carry out during the following month.

My co-SA and I have had many ideas of how to reach the goal of the class. At first, we prepared our self-introductions on PowerPoint software. We introduced ourselves to the new students by making presentations because we thought that if we only introduced ourselves with a few words, it would not leave a deep impression on the students. We encouraged the students to emulate our presentations to talk about themselves. One by one, the students used PowerPoint for 3 to 5 minutes, like we did. I thought it was a good thing for them to buy a USB, to borrow laptops and to practice on PCs. Surprisingly for me, the freshmen had excellent computer skills and especially the Chinese students prepared good visual presentations about themselves.

Other popular activities included sports competitions and parties. Freshmen classes in the department played basketball, volleyball and dodgeball against each other. My class played very well and won the 2nd prize. We planned a party at a local restaurant near the end of the semester, the first opportunity for us to dine out together.

Working as a TA is much easier than being a SA. In Japan, different teachers have different needs. The lead teacher of Japanese language tests simply asks me to carry his heavy bag of books and materials to class. The other lead teacher, who is in charge of Japanese teaching methodology, asks me to make a rollcall. When I was a university student I was enrolled in these two subjects and I remember the content.

The Japanese language class covers honorifics, correct grammar, kanji, and vocabulary with the aim of enabling students to pass the Japanese language test. I am a TA, but I study in the class as a student. I really like this class because I can improve my Japanese ability. In the class of Japanese teaching methodology, students can learn how to teach Japanese to foreigners. Actually, as a TA, I support the teacher less than I thought I would have to. Other TAs whom I interviewed reported that they planned lessons with the head instructor (Hirata, 2018). While TAs in other classes whom I interviewed said that they were asked to translate, and to review the writing in students’ daily journals.

Although the job as a SA is more time consuming and challenging, I do receive a little higher salary. At my university in Japan, the SA salary is 850yen per hour, 1600yen per lesson. The TA’s salary is 1,000 yen per hour, or 1,500yen per lesson to a maximum of 10 hours per week. On the one hand, being a TA in Japan is easier than in other countries. But it is low pay when compared to other jobs that require a bachelor’s degree.

According to classmates, at some universities in China, TAs prepare lesson materials, print and copy papers and help teachers in class. On the other hand, the TA in China makes approximately 10,000 yen per month as a salary. This salary includes the pay for helping students in class as well as helping the teacher outside of classes which takes about 6 hours per week. Salaries in the U.S. are much higher (Bruens, 2012) but the TA is responsible for preparing lesson plans and teaching classes without the presence of a supervising instructor.

When I return to Vietnam, I hope to become a Japanese language teacher. I think I have been lucky to be a TA because I earned money and had free time to study. In addition to being rewarding, the SA job afforded me opportunities to receive training, spend time with students, and to make friends and colleagues.


Bruens, R. (2012). Graduate Teaching Assistant: Job Description, Pay. Teaching Careers. Concordia University-Portland. Retrieved from: <https://education.cu-portland.edu>

Hirata, H. (2018). How TAs Can Assist in the Editing of Student Papers. The Language Teacher 42(5).