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Developing TA-Student Relationships

By being aware of the characteristics and needs of the different student types found in American classrooms, the international TA can better appreciate the multiple dimensions of the TA-student relationship. Perhaps in some cultures the instructor- student relationship is more clearly defined so that both students and teachers have clear and stable expectations of one another. Implied in the descriptions of student types given here is the idea that the student-TA relationship in American classrooms is one that is continually being negotiated and redefined.

Important aspects of the TA-student relationship include the following:

  • Many students need to feel that above all else, their instructors care about them.
  • Conflicts and frustrations are part of any relationship. Working through frustrations can develop and enrich the quality of TA-student relationships.
  • Patience and acceptance are vital to the TA-student relationship. Just as it can be difficult for international TAs to accept certain American values, it is sometimes difficult for students to adjust to and accept certain values of the international TA.
  • Communicating honestly to students and encouraging students to express their needs and attitudes is often necessary in avoiding or clearing up misunderstandings in the classroom.
  • International TAs and their American students may not realize when cultural miscommunication is occurring. For this reason, it is important for international TAs to continually check their perceptions and expectations with those of their students.
  • A positive attitude can avoid troublesome situations. When a TA approaches students with a positive attitude, many misunderstandings can be avoided.

The following is an example of a situation that could have been troublesome to the TA had he not had a positive attitude toward a student whose behavior at first appeared to be insulting to the TA.

"For example, a student is reading the newspaper, putting one of his legs on the front chair... That really distracts you. So what I told him was, 'Could you please read that newspaper outside?' He right away closed it and started to listen. I didn't say it in the way of getting mad at him or anything. I looked at it as that he is not there to rebel or do something against class or against me or anything. He felt comfortable to read the newspaper. Some TAs feel that it is an insult to them but you've got to know that maybe the student doesn't feel like that. Maybe he feels like it is okay. So, you have to give him a chance to know what you like or what you want." (International TA, Social Sciences)

The TA-student relationship extends beyond the classroom to TA office hours. For many students, the relationship they develop with the TA during this one-to-one communication time can greatly affect their academic performance as well as their feelings about themselves in relation to the course and the TA.

"Talking about problems [during office hours] helps students get a little bit loose and helps them make a better relationship with the TA. It helps them understand the subject better in the long run because they lose their self-consciousness of asking questions that otherwise they may not ask." (International TA, Engineering)

The TA-student relationship should be kept on a professional basis at all times (in class, during office hours, on campus and off campus). When students consider the TA as less of an authority and more of a friend, they may blame the TA for their poor grades or expect the TA to bend the rules for them. This can cause serious problems and bad feelings for both the TA and student.

Most colleges and universities are particularly sensitive to aspects of the TA- student relationship that can involve issues of dating or sexual interaction. Federal law explicitly prohibits sexual harassment. Most simply defined, sexual harassment is unwanted sexual attention in the education or employment setting. Unwanted sexual attention is essentially defined by the victim, and may include such actions as sexual propositions, pressure for dates, or repeated staring, touching, or sexual comments.

Some universities consider even mutually desired dating relationships between instructors and current students to be unethical and unprofessional. Such dating, they reason, not only "disrupts" the student-teacher relationship between those directly involved, but also upsets the learning environment for other students in the class and may result in charges of discrimination. Thus, if a TA develops a romantic interest in one of his/her students, it is strongly recommended that social contact be postponed until after this student is no longer subject to the TA's instruction and evaluation.

On occasion, a TA may find that unwanted sexual advances are initiated by a student. Such situations must be handled in a very professional manner. The following incident was described by a male international TA.

"On a few occasions, I had female students come in and implicitly or explicitly offer favors for grades. That surprised me. For instance, suppose you are sitting in your office and you are trying to explain a point. Now, her leg--her knee--starts touching your knee. The first time you'll say, 'Ah, it's nothing. This was an accident." Then you will notice that it happens again and again. Now you look at her blouse and it is open a bit. It's a mixture of words, tone of voice, the blouse, the touching: things like that. There are a variety of ways this happens. Such things occurred a couple of times. Now, the first time it occurred, I didn't exactly understand what was happening. It happened on another occasion with the same person. I just told her that she was too close for comfort. I presume that incoming TAs would be particularly vulnerable to this kind of behavior... An American guy would be less likely to fall for this kind of trick. That's my hunch. The foreign guys are lonelier than American guys."

While such incidents are rare, they can occur and TAs need to be ready to handle such situations.

Of course, language difficulties and cultural differences can cause problems for both students and international TAs. Discussing rather than avoiding problems when they arise can lead to creative solutions and new realizations.

"Of course, some students were very nice. Because they knew I had problems with the language, they tried to communicate with me and to explain their questions in more detail. That really helped. And also it depends on the TA. We Chinese are very concerned about saving face. We wouldn't ask students to explain. We wouldn't ask them what's going on. We keep things inside. That causes some problems. I think it's better to talk with students or professors. Sometimes it could prevent some misunderstandings."

Although it is the international TA in the American classroom who is referred to as being "foreign", one international TA saw it another way. He explained that because the TA is the authority figure in the classroom, students look to the TA for leadership and expect the TA to set class norms. He stated,

"In the international TA's classroom, it is the student who is the foreigner and the TA needs to make the student feel welcome."

This TA perception was validated by an undergraduate student who made the following comment.

"When a TA is nervous in front of the class it makes me feel a little more nervous or uncomfortable. If the TA just starts talking and asking questions or just kind of joking around--if people start laughing, you're set. The class will be fine. I mean, that makes it a lot more comfortable."

Students want a positive relationship with their TAs, and when given the opportunity, are willing to participate in developing a comfortable classroom atmosphere. Of course, what may be comfortable for one person is not necessarily comfortable for another. By learning about one another through classroom and office hour interactions, international TAs and American students transcend cultural boundaries and develop a cross-cultural, teacher-student relationship.

consultation contacts

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