Teaching in the US: A Moment Full of Learning Experience!

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Yopina presenting her research findings at a conference in Chicago, IL

Though she had previously been a lecturer in Indonesia, Yopina Pertiwi found that teaching in the US was different. As a graduate student at the University of Toledo, part of her responsibility includes teaching, and over the years, she picked up some of the thing she learned along the way that she found helpful in her teaching experience.

It was Monday, August 22, 2016, the first day of class of the fall semester at the University of Toledo, Ohio. This was perhaps just a typical first day of class for any other student, but not for me. That particular morning, I double-checked many things that I don’t usually pay much attention to. I carefully dressed up in professional attire, then took a deep breath and convinced myself that everything would be alright.

That day was my first day of teaching independently, to a hundred of undergraduate students at an American university. No, it was not my first day of public speaking to a large audience. As a matter of fact, I have been a teaching assistant since my first year of being a graduate student at the university in the fall of 2013. Back in Indonesia, I have also been a lecturer since 2011 and taught some courses in English. However, that day still looked like a whole new experience to me. After all, I am a woman, I am not American and I speak English with accent, and I wear the hijab that clearly shows my minority status in the U.S.  I am also only about 4’10” (around 147cm), so I look a lot younger than I actually am. All of this made me nervous and worried that the students would see me as incompetent.

That first day did, thankfully, go as planned and expected. The students enjoyed the class and laughed at jokes I had practiced the previous few days. However, as it was my first time teaching solo in a very different cultural context than my cultural origin, I did experience some challenges. The whole teaching experience was really rewarding to me, and I would like to share with you some of the things I learned that hopefully will be useful for others who will embark in a similar journey.

At the main campus of the University of Toledo
At the main campus of the University of Toledo

Learn about Different Cultural Expectations and Find Strategies that Work for You

In Indonesia, students tend to consider the instructor as a person who carries higher authority, of whom their power was not to be challenged. Although it may not be ideal for the students, from the instructor’s point of view, it makes it easier to communicate the course rules to the classroom, and once it is set, only few, if any, would contest it. In the U.S., the relationship between students and the instructors is quite different. Some students expect a more loose relationship between themselves and the instructors, which are represented in the ways they communicate to their instructors. In my first semester of teaching, I often found myself caught in between the rules I have set up myself and emotional feelings (be it sympathy or nervous of not doing it right), when dealing with students’ questions, requests, or complaints. Through times, I learned about communicating with empathy without being swayed by the students’ requests to change or modify the rules we’ve all agreed from the beginning of the semester. Trust me, whenever you find yourself caught in the same situation, it is always best to stick to the rules you have set up from the beginning of the semester! One tip that is very helpful is to describe everything on the course syllabus and the online platform used for the course (if you use one) about all the rules in detail (e.g., assignments and exams schedule, whether or not you allow late assignments and make-up exams, communication rules, etc.) and never change them at any point of time. Doing this will also save yourself time and energy in case students complaint or make unexpected requests throughout the semester.

Familiarize Yourself with the University Policies and the System

It is very important to really understand the do’s and don’ts based on the university expectation. When you teach, you may have to deal with student misconduct or plagiarism issues, and you would need to make a decision that follows your university policies so that you have a solid ground for the decision. This also means that before you start teaching, make sure you read the content of the university policies about teaching, or at least, you should know who you should contact if something occurs. If you’re a graduate student, chances are you will have a supervising professor with whom you can always talk to about these kind of things. So, if things happen and you’re not sure what to do, make sure you discuss with your supervisor and take the appropriate action.

Be Confident!

One of the most important things I learned is: confidence is the key. My first day of teaching clearly shows that I wasn’t confident of myself. Instead of laying out the weaknesses (that basically stemmed from appearances), I could have laid out my strengths in teaching this course. After all, I was already a third year graduate student at that time, had two master’s degrees in psychology, and have taught before. I found that being confident did not only help myself while teaching, but also built the students’ faith in my competence. So, make sure to always remind yourself that you ARE COMPETENT and YOU CAN DO THIS!

Practice, Practice, Practice!

This may seem like novel advice, but it is always important to mention this repeatedly. Practicing your lecture before the class is always helpful to boost your confidence while teaching and help you prepare for questions that may arise during the lecture. This also helps us prevent a lot of stumbling because we suddenly forget the ‘vocabulary in English’ as a person who speaks English as a second (or third ☺) language.

Feedback is Important

It is always important to look back on the lecture right after you teach so you can learn from your experience that day. Also, beside course evaluations that are provided from the university at the end of the semester, I tended to ask for evaluations at the middle of the semester and also talked to some students about their learning experience in my class. It could feel very dreadful, but trust me, it is worth it, as you can always learn from any type of feedback (positive or negative) to improve your course and teaching skill the next time around.

Talk to Other Graduate Students Alike

Talking to other graduate students who also teach like you (of course, without breaching students’ confidentiality) about the challenges and hurdles you have is good for your soul. Teaching, especially the first time and in a whole different cultural context, can be very stressful. Therefore, talking with other students can make you feel a lot better about your experience and you can also learn new things from each other about what works and what not.

Finally, if you now find yourself preparing to teach a class independently, I wish you a good luck! And remember, YOU CAN DO THIS!

Yopina and friends after commencement
Yopina and friends after commencement

Photos were provided by author.