Teach the Earth > Early Career > International Faculty > Challenges in Teaching

Challenges in Teaching

If you are an international faculty member, you face challenges in teaching beyond those of other faculty members. Here are some suggestions for overcoming those hurdles, gathered from your peers.

Advice from Heike Alberts

Geology Corner at Stanford University. Photo by Carol Ormand, courtesy of Carol Ormand.

Heike Alberts is an Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin - Oshkosh. In 2007, she presented her advice for international instructors at a session for international faculty at the Association of American Geographers conference.

Advice from Early Career Workshop Alumni

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Adapting to the US classroom culture

Students in the US often have different expectations than international faculty do when it comes to appropriate classroom behavior, challenging authority, asking naive questions, collaboration vs. plagiarism, and other issues.

  • Know what to expect. Read how international teaching assistants at Stanford University describe their teaching experiences in an article called Teaching in the U.S. Classroom. Talk to your colleagues about what constitutes "normal" student behavior. You could also ask to visit their classrooms to observe how their students act.
  • Be clear about your expectations. If it offends you when students eat, drink, or wear a hat in the classroom (or engage in some other activity), it is okay to tell them not to. Most students will be quite understanding it you explain that in your country it is a sign of disrespect toward the teacher. If it is okay (or even required) for students to collaborate on an assignment, be explicit about what kind of collaboration you will expect or allow.

Teaching in a foreign language

For many international faculty members, English is a foreign language. Teaching in a foreign language presents multiple challenges, from explaining complex ideas to making yourself understandable to students who may be unfamiliar with your accent.

  • Take advantage of whatever teaching-related faculty development workshops and programs your institution offers.
  • Visit your campus Teaching and Learning Center and ask about their services. For instance, you may be able to have yourself videotaped teaching and get ideas for improvements.
  • Most importantly, be well prepared for class – then your language concerns will only be about expressing well-planned lectures, not about creating them as you go!
  • Use powerpoint slides that highlight important terminology, so that your students will know what you are saying.
  • Including classroom assessment techniques can help you to assess whether students understand what you are saying – a good idea, whether they are struggling with complex ideas or just with an unfamiliar accent.

Cultural literacy

If you weren't raised in the U.S., you may be unfamiliar with "popular culture" – particularly if you've been immersed in graduate studies throughout your time in this country. But cultural literacy makes it easier to relate to your students, and, in some cases, your colleagues.

  • Perhaps the most direct route to culture literacy is through your students. Come to class a few minutes early, and engage them in conversation: ask your students what they like to do outside of class.
  • Make use of your colleagues: get involved with department social events. Share your experiences, and ask about whether it's similar or different in the U.S. Don't socialize exclusively within your own cultural group.
  • Read the newspaper and watch some television or listen to the radio.

Lack of familiarity with the "standard" curriculum:

If you were educated outside of the U.S., you may not be sure what students know when they come into your classroom.

  • Find out about what is taught in prerequisite courses: talk to your department chair, and also to your colleagues who teach those classes. Ask for copies of their syllabi, and look at the class websites (if they exist).
  • Find out about the requirements for admission to your institution: talk to the Director of Admissions about undergraduate admissions, and the Director of Graduate Studies in your department about graduate admissions.


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