Teaching Assistance: Knocking Down Brick Walls

Erik J. Davis, Kagawa University

For this issue’s Teaching Assistance, the author encourages readers to take a look at ways to improve student engagement and learning. While studying at Colorado State University, Erik Davis had the opportunity to study abroad in Nagasaki and come in contact with Japanese language, culture, history, and society. After graduation, he was hired as a teaching assistant in classes in the Faculty of Education at a university in Japan. He was initially shocked by how little the foreign language students would say. Having no experience in teaching English as a foreign language, he nonetheless set about trying to end this silence—a task which seemed as hard as a brick wall.

In this essay he suggests four personal principles that he developed to inform his approach to teaching and help him to break down communication barriers between students and teachers. As an example of the maxim to “follow the learners’ interests to maintain student involvement” (Richards, 1996, p. 287), he recognized that by calling out the names of his students and showing a personal interest in their hometowns or what they do on weekends could make them become more comfortable when speaking in English around him and their peers. His supervisor at Kagawa University, Gerardine McCrohan appraises the advantages of having a TA in a postscript to this article.

When asked how much time he used to prepare for his lectures, retired Professor of Physics, Walter Lewin of MIT replied that, on average, he spent 40 to 50 hours preparing for just one lecture. This included multiple dry-runs of the lesson in the empty classroom where he was going to lecture (Chu, 2012). While there are differences between the ways in which physics and foreign languages are taught, we can still appreciate the outstanding dedication Lewin had toward his teaching style. In this increasingly changing world, educators everywhere are constantly looking for new ways to improve the effectiveness of their lessons, and to get their students more engaged in learning. But how can we go about improving these aspects of our teaching styles?

Similar to my peers, after graduating from a university in America I wanted to gain the international experience of teaching English in the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’. I had no prior training or practice in teaching English as a foreign language, but with some luck I found a job at Kagawa University in Takamatsu, where I have been helping in English education and international programs for the past ten months.

You might be thinking, what can someone with only ten months of teaching experience offer to veteran teachers of foreign languages? Perhaps the fact that I was recently a student of a foreign language myself, and that I have also just crossed the bridge into the teaching world might enable me to share a perspective from both sides of the classroom that some might find unique and interesting.

Like several other newly-hired teachers at our university, my first time leading an English lesson was somewhat painful. As I stood in front of the class, many of my enthusiastic words seemed to collide head-on with a solid brick wall of silence. I had half expected this, as I had been told many times that the Japanese classroom is much different from the American classroom. Even so, this gave me the determination to find new ways to increase the engagement of my students and the effectiveness of my teaching. I began to really reflect on the time when I was a student, as well as observe the teaching styles of my colleagues at the university. So here are four maxims that have helped me and which might help improve the engagement of your students and the efficiency of their learning: Learn more about your students, embrace their mistakes, understand different learning styles, and be positive and realistic.

Learn More About Your Students

Richard Schmidt, Professor of Second Language Studies and Director of the National Foreign Language Resource Center at the University of Hawaii compiled and published a list of generally accepted findings concerning second and foreign language learning. In it, he claims that factors such as student-teacher and student-student relationships, expectations of success or failure, self-confidence, and anxiety can all affect a student’s motivation to learn (Schmidt, 2001). So how do we begin improving on these factors?

A person’s name may sound like a small fraction of their identity, inadequate to be a main factor of a teacher-student relationship. But in actuality, it is one of the most important elements in establishing and maintaining a good relationship with anyone. I remember that the professors who knew and remembered my name were the professors I was more comfortable speaking and addressing my academic concerns with.

I began trying to remember the names of my students—even creating funny mnemonic stories to help me remember them. Many of my students found the stories enjoyable and appreciated my efforts in trying to remember each of their names. I then went a step further and began learning more about my students by asking: What were their interests? Where were they from? Did they have a big soccer game coming up? Did they recently go on a trip? Showing an interest in these kinds of things helped my students become more comfortable when speaking English around me and their peers, engaging in class activities, and approaching me with questions or concerns. In this way, I was able to remove a few layers of bricks off the wall of silence in my classes.

Embrace the Mistakes

When we make a mistake in front of our peers, it often results in a bad experience that leaves us embarrassed and less motivated to engage in active learning. I decided to tackle this problem head-on in order to create a better learning environment because I believe that mistakes are the backbone of learning and that they play a fundamental role in the true acquisition of any skill. Unarguably, students often have inaccuracies and misconceptions within their current knowledge of a foreign language. Mistakes are what help make these aberrations clear, and what make it possible for them to be corrected. Alice Kolb and David Kolb of Case Western Reserve University suggest that: 

All learning is relearning. Learning is best facilitated by a process that draws out the students’ beliefs and ideas about a topic so that they can be examined, tested, and integrated with new, more refined ideas (Kolb & Kolb, 2005, p. 194).

In class, whenever I ask a general question to my students, I consistently convey that it is okay if they make a mistake when answering it. I tell them that the students who make the most mistakes and try their hardest to correct them will improve their English the most. I don’t just state this once at the beginning of the semester, but multiple times. Throughout the semester I remind students that mistakes are okay, and the fear of making them should not hinder their ability to participate in class activities. Embrace the mistakes, and only admonish the student who puts no effort in trying to correct them. When I did this, a few more layers of bricks came off the wall of silence.

Understand Different Learning Styles

As a student, I quickly discovered that it is just as important to understand how to learn new content as it is to learn the content itself. One of the generally accepted findings of learning is that “different learners use different learning strategies” and that “more successful learners use a broader range of strategies more flexibly” (Schmidt, 2001, p. 7). While a student progresses through their academic years, one challenge they face is finding which learning styles work best for them, and then trying to adjust material so that it can be studied in these styles. As teachers, we can help our students by incorporating the use of many different kinds of materials to explain an idea or concept.

With the technology available today, we have access to vast amounts of information and content that is presented through various media. While teaching, I make an effort to include as many different tools of conveying information as possible, whether that be showing a video of the Tony the Tiger cereal character saying “Grrrreat” to help students practice their [r] pronunciation, or finding examples of grammar structures in popular songs or speeches to help them understand how they are used in context. There is not much of that brick wall left now.

Be Positive and Enthusiastic

If there was just one more point I could convey, it would be to stay as positive and enthusiastic as you can while teaching. Students will reflect the amount of energy you bring to the classroom, and this aspect will help them to become interested in what you have to offer them. Being positive will not only improve the engagement and interest of your students, but also add meaning and fun to your day-to-day work. So, try to think of a few jokes here and there, and keep your chin up as you tackle the brick walls that prevent your teaching from being as effective as it can be.


Chu, J. (2012). The professor who brings physics to life. MIT News Magazine. MIT Technology Review.

Kolb, A. Y., & Kolb, D. A. (2005). Learning styles and learning spaces: Enhancing experiential learning in higher education. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 4(2), 193–212.

Richards, J. (1996). Teachers’ maxims in language teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 30(2), 281–296.

Schmidt, R. (2001). Theories, evidence, and practice in foreign language teaching. The Korean Language in America, 6, 3–10.


Postscript from Gerardine McCrohan

I had Erik Davis as a teaching assistant for two classes. One class consisted of 52 students of Cross-culture Communication in the Faculty of Education, while the other was made up of 20 learners from all faculties and grades who wanted to prepare for TOEIC Speaking and Writing. In these classes, Erik circulated among the students, keeping them focused, helping them with their work, and asking and answering questions about the course materials. Erik was particularly valuable in supporting and interacting with students who needed additional attention. He also helped supervise tests, checked that students had written their names and student numbers on papers and tests, and verified the final test scores. Outside of class, he helped proofread tests and other handouts, advised students on their course work and assignments, and helped them practice presentations.

Erik also provided useful feedback to me about how well the material was being understood or sometimes, not understood, which encouraged me to change the pace, order, and occasionally content of my classes. I valued getting the feedback during the course as opposed to just getting student ratings after the course had concluded. Having Erik as a TA has made me a more reflective teacher and ultimately, I hope, a better one.

University faculty who are accustomed to doing classroom related work alone may ask, how do I share the complex and difficult tasks of designing, developing and sometimes modifying the curriculum, building relationships, and monitoring and guiding the students’ progress, with someone who may have a different teaching philosophy and have less experience? On the other hand, I think that sharing the teaching with a TA is generally good for both faculty and students, and can be a very rewarding way of teaching. Having a TA is a win-win scenario for teachers and students. With larger classes, a TA is an invaluable asset. Having a TA in the classroom significantly improves the instructor-student ratio, which is important when students work in groups.