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International student series Part 2: Tips for new teaching assistants

Here’s the second post in our series for international students studying in the USA. In this post Camila shares what she learned as a graduate teaching assistant and provides some helpful tips and advice to help you succeed in the classroom.

imagesOur contributor Camila Ortega shares her experience as an international PhD student studying in the US.  Originally from Chile, Camila came to the US in 2010 to work towards her PhD in Molecular Biology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. A natural leader, Camila has been actively involved with her community and have plays a major role in several events on campus.

US universities and research institutions are recognized around the globe. As a result, many international students find it very exciting to study abroad in the US. Before moving, it’s important to keep in mind that living and school expenses are a part of the reality of being an international student in the USA. If you don’t have a plan before getting to your final destination, you may ended up in debt paying out of your own pocket. To avoid this, you can apply for scholarships ahead of time or get an RA (Research assistantship) or TA (Teaching assistantship) in your department of interest.

When applying for TA positions, keep in mind that you need to send in the application at least one month before the semester starts. (Some Universities select TAs even earlier than that).  Just remember that secretaries are your best friend!. They can give you the selection dates and much more.


If you feel like teaching is not an option for you because of the language barrier, don’t be afraid! Here are some tips that may help you realize you’re not the only one!

Tips for new teaching assistants

  • Arrive early to the classroom (at least half an hour before your class starts). This would help put you in the right state of mind.  You will also have the opportunity to chat with students, so they get to meet you, get used to your accent and eventually, your teaching style.  This will also help you pick out the “A” students from the rest- these are the students you can rely on when you start to engage the students with in class participation.
  • Use the board. Since you’re coming earlier anyways, if there is a concept that you feel might be too hard to explain, the board can really come in handy! I remember during my first semester as a TA, I would write down the complete protocols and diagrams (luckily I had access to 2 huge boards in the classroom!). These also would served you as a backup, so if a student complains “Ohh, you didn’t say it”, you can point it out and say “it’s written on the board”.
  • You can assist in other TAs sessions. In the TA meetings you will meet the other TAs. Try to figure out  which ones are more experienced, so when you’re in trouble you can ask him or her if you can assist in their class. That way,  you will have a better idea on how to organize your own class.
  • Finally, remember that the educational system in the US most likely will be different that the one from your country and you will make mistakes! Just be sincere with your students and take the experience as a learning process, eventually you will get better at teaching and you will develop your techniques and teaching style.

Extra tip: be strict about office hours and e-mails hours, so students don’t think you have all the time in the world or that you’re sitting in your computer just waiting to get e-mails from them. For example, You can tell them, I will only accept e-mails until 8:00 PM so if you e-mail me after this time don’t expect a reply on the same day.


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