This issue’s Teaching Assistance builds on insight from Kawamura (2016) concerning university administrators in Japan who reacted to falling student enrolments due to increasing language class sizes. Additional responses to the downward trend included opening language centers that students from any discipline could attend. To reduce the need for teachers, curriculum changes allowed for granting credits to students who pass certified language tests offered by private testing companies, such as Educational Testing Service. A further belt-tightening strategy implemented at some private universities assigned more classes per semester to full-time teachers. A mitigating response for professors burdened by higher classroom contact hours brought in lower-paid language center administrators and teaching assistants (TAs). TAs can be vital sources of support for universities, and in return, TAs can gain teaching experience by handling tasks such as planning, organizing, motivating, and controlling classroom environments. This essay outlines how a seemingly impossible teaching load was made possible with the support of a TA.
University enrollments where I teach have fallen and colleagues were unable to teach classes for various personal reasons so I was not surprised when the registrar’s office scheduled five classes for me on Fridays last semester. Other days were almost as busy, but classes held at the end of the week are popular among students. The subjects were diverse: a morning MA seminar, English Presentation Skills, English Teaching Methodology, Foreign Affairs, and a Special English Topics class for graduate students. For good measure, the lunch break was to be filled with students who needed teacher supervision to increase their TOEIC scores for a newly launched academic program. Realizing that getting through the next 15 Fridays was going to be an arduous task, I got busy designing a cohesive program and adjusting my lesson plans.
A quick look at my syllabi revealed all 5 subjects could be conducted in English, and the common keywords in the syllabi were active learning and presentations. I hired a graduate student to help me with two of the classes in addition to studying in the two MA subjects on the same day. We both were very busy on Fridays but felt that there could be a synergistic effect for us, the 91 undergraduate students, and the nine graduate students who had enrolled. I also invited guest speakers to inspire these 100 students. The catchphrase “Tobitate! Study Abroad Japan” used by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology was adapted to link my courses together into a semester-long colloquium. The motto encapsulates the various themes that guests were to speak about and was composed as a seventeen-syllable haiku: Open the door wide, run far this autumn, Fridays for foreign futures!” (Nishihara and McMurray, 2019).
A phone call to an embassy to invite English-speaking diplomats to come talk with students in three of my classes was met positively. Having 5 classes on the same day meant visitors could reach out to as many as 100 students, who had a keen interest in studying or working abroad. It was quickly confirmed that students enrolled in the English Presentation Skills, Foreign Affairs, and the Special English Topics classes matched who the embassy officials wanted to reach out to. I invited managers of an international company to come share stories about their products. Between semesters, I judge English speech contests and English haiku contests, so I was able to ask the contest organizers to come promote these activities. I also convinced colleagues who needed my help to improve their English skills for overseas conference papers to practice in my classes. After I helped a few graduate students who required assistance in writing papers in English, I suggested that they come to my classes to share their research findings with my students (McMurray, 2019).
My first Friday class was scheduled for September 27, which coincidentally happened to be the same date set by Greta Thunberg for students around the world to hold climate strikes. I was a little anxious about how many students would show up to my class. For example, Canadian colleagues at the Toronto District School Board, Dawson College in Montreal, and the University of British Columbia spent that day marching alongside as many as 500,000 students at Friday for Futures climate strikes led by Greta Thunberg (Stober, 2019 September 26). In Japan, however, my students informed me that taking the day off to participate in demonstrations could negatively affect their success at job hunting, and therefore, they wanted to attend classes every Friday.
Having a TA freed me from having to take attendance, disseminate handouts, read weekly journals, and check short tests. The TA set up the electronic equipment and moved desks, chairs, and whiteboards to meet the needs of guests or for a particular language teaching activity. Experiencing various English teaching methodologies helped the TA understand pedagogy. For example, by sometimes following desuggestopedia teaching methodology, the TA took responsibility for playing music and creating an environment that suggested to students that each of the Friday classes was going to be special. The TA set up realia such as posters, art, and tea ceremony apparatus that guests from a tea company wanted to show students. When teaching vocabulary in an English only classroom, students who touch and feel real items respond more positively than those who only a picture of it in a picture-dictionary or as a drawing on the blackboard. This activity seemed to accord with the guidelines of direct language learning methodology. The TA also distributed faculty development surveys and organized 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).
Preliminary results show that inviting various guests to the classroom seemed to have a positive effect on students. With my limited office hours, students soon realized that their only chance to talk freely to graduate students and professors would be in the classroom. With few opportunities to ever exchange words with staff at an embassy, students literally seized the chance to ask questions when the friendly and informative officials visited. Students were often asked by the TA to assist in moving desks and chairs or putting up posters to suit the needs of visiting speakers. The usual Spartan look of a university classroom was dramatically changed. Moving the usual classroom venue to a tatami mat tearoom for managers at a tea company altered perceptions and boosted interest in how presentations could be made to an audience. By analyzing the feedback students wrote in their journals, I could confirm these positive observations. These diaries are self-reported. The TA read the hand-written notes each week, answered questions from the students, and sometimes wrote questions to the students to encourage further study. Comments from students included wanting to emulate the abilities of visiting researchers and the TA. Students described their desire to ask questions. They reported wanting to participate more in classroom discussions with future guests. Homework assignments naturally flipped the regular lessons. Students spent more time outside of regular class by reading articles, writing down questions to ask guests, surfing internet home pages recommended by the guest speakers, and watching videos so they could better keep up with discussions during class time.
On quieter days of the week, I take time to review with the TA what happened the previous Friday. We discuss the comments recorded in student diaries. On Friday mornings during the first period seminar, we quickly revise the day’s plans and decide on lesson plans to implement for the following Friday. By integrating five classes into a coordinated program that involves inviting graduate students, professors, and off campus guests, I now look forward to Fridays.
Hodge, K. (2015, April 1). How teaching assistants can make a real difference in the classroom. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com
Kawamura, Y. (2016). Teaching assistance from TAs. The Language Teacher, 40(6), 32-33.
McMurray, D. (2019). Approaching the essence of Canada. The IUK Journal of Intercultural Studies, 19(4), 201-214.
Nishihara, K. & McMurray, D. (2019). Fridays For Foreign Futures. The IUK Journal of Intercultural Studies, 40(3), 148-159.
Stober, E. (2019, September 26). Here’s what to know about Friday’s climate strikes in Canada. Global News. Retrieved from https://globalnews.ca/news/5957397/global-climate-strike-canada/