Teaching at Pitt

Supporting International Teaching Assistants: Language, Pedagogy and Culture

International teaching assistants (ITAs) help further Pitt’s educational mission by fulfilling teaching-related responsibilities as they make progress toward their own graduate degree. Pitt is committed to providing support for ITAs through the English Language Institute (ELI), the Graduate Student Teaching Initiative at the University Center for Teaching and Learning, the Office of International Services (OIS), individual departments and many other services and programs more broadly available to all teaching assistants and teaching fellows (TAs/TFs).

Specialized Support for ITAs

In early March of this year, the University Center for Teaching and Learning and the ELI hosted the fourth annual International TA Professionals Symposium in Alumni Hall. Carnegie Mellon University’s (CMU) Intercultural Communication Center founded the event with the goal of bringing together English as a Second Language (ESL) specialists, faculty TA coordinators and teaching support specialists who work directly with ITAs on campuses throughout the region. As co-sponsors of this year’s event, Pitt and CMU provided valuable space for conversations revolving around an under-publicized education field, and moderated keynote presentations, research talks and lively discussions that addressed the three, overlapping cornerstones of ITA formation: language, pedagogy and culture.

“What are office hours?!?”

At the symposium, Viviana Cortés of Georgia State University’s (GSU) Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) recalled that as a graduate student of Applied Linguistics, she was thrust into her first teaching position with no training whatsoever. We all chuckled at her first and most glaring concern at the time: “Office hours? What are office hours?!?” Her experience reflects the reality that many taken-for-granted features and terminology of American academia may be unfamiliar to ITAs.

ITA Challenges

ITAs must pass an examination of oral comprehensibility. At Pitt, this test is mandated by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and consists of a warm-up, teaching role-play and discussion questions. The highest rating is earned by students who effectively uphold their part of a dialogue while displaying intelligible pronunciation, making almost no grammar errors and showing no difficulty in understanding the exchange.

At the symposium, we learned from Cortés that GSU’s ITA pilot program evaluates students not only based on their language skills (clarity), but also on their pedagogical strategies (lesson organization), and cultural awareness (attentiveness to the learner and classroom management). Her data showed that some students with clear passing oral proficiency scores still struggled to make eye contact, avoided walking towards the audience and did not use gestures and facial cues.

Language Skills

ITA training programs are not only designed to improve vocabulary and grammar, but the rhythm, stress and intonation of speech, which is linked to undergraduates’ comprehension and recall of academic discourse, as laid out by Greta Gorsuch on her 2016 synthesis of ITA research. Mimicking American speech deliveries is a useful exercise for ITAs, and Veronica Sardegna’s symposium talk highlighted the benefits of students comparing their own recorded reading to original renditions, such as Yo-Yo Ma’s essay for NPR’s “This I Believe” series. At Pitt, ITAs can address these and other language issues through ELI’s Classroom Communication for ITAs course or through weekly small-group tutoring sessions.

Pedagogical Strategies

At the symposium, Cortés reminded us that instructors can begin a class in any discipline by recalling previous content and explaining key terms to activate schematic knowledge and reduce students’ anxiety. This staple of the U.S. classroom may be unfamiliar to ITAs, Gorsuch asserts in her 2012 article about ITAs’ educational cultures and teaching beliefs. At Pitt, instructors are encouraged to create lesson plans that go from a warm-up segment to the main content to a cool-down activity. ITAs are exposed to this methodology through departmental training and also through resources such as Pitt’s TA Handbook and the many workshops organized by the University Center for Teaching and Learning. Upper level TAs/TFs may also enroll in the University Teaching Practicum (FacDev 2200).

Cultural Differences

In Cultural differences exist within individual classrooms, as well as departments. The New Teaching Assistant Orientation (NTAO) introduces students to the unique features of U.S. classrooms, such as informality, and the emphasis on student participation. Catherine Ross and Jane Dunphy’s “Strategies for Teaching Assistant and International Teaching Assistant Development,” the chapter on Preparing the ITA for Office Hours, by Elizabeth Wittner, proposes enrolling volunteer undergrads to engage in constructive learning and difficult situation role-play. This activity aims at discussing concerns, expectations, and positive (as well as negative) experiences of both students and ITAs. Other suggestions as to how faculty can assist ITAs are delineated in Pitt’s Working With Your TA guidebook.

ITA Education as Undergrad Education

High English oral proficiency is but one of the three pillars of ITA success — along with sound pedagogical strategies and awareness of cultural variances — in guiding students along their cognitive development. Therefore, ITAs (and thus undergrads) will continue to thrive with the support of specialists that not only remediate language issues, but that expose them to teaching strategies rooted in pedagogical theories, and advise them on navigating foreign social dynamics.


Lizette A. Muñoz Rojas is a teaching fellow for the Graduate Student Teaching Initiative at the University Center for Teaching and Learning.