How to Teach as an International Teacher  

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Sarah Deel’s Finding My Teaching Voice reminds me of my own teaching experience. I had a hard time to find my own teaching style until I read the book The Courage to Teach by Palmer mentioned in Deel’s article. This book inspired me to teach with respect to my own voice, to honor the nature of my true self. I decided to write something about my experience as an international teacher in the USA.

I emphasize international teacher because that is how I see myself. I was shocked the first time a Virginia Tech professor in my department recommended me to teach. It was an honor to have the opportunity, but at the same time I felt quite upset because I am from a non-English speaking country and experienced a completely different learning and training system.

The first few days of my class were awful. I was afraid that the students wouldn’t respect me because I am merely a graduate student, not a professor. What’s more, I was mimicking the professor who previously taught this class. I tried to memorize and reiterate what he said when he taught. It was more like presentation, rather than teaching. In that first week’s class, I felt that I would lose my students if I did not improve my teaching.

I went to visit and observed other professors’ classes and tried to learn from them. Also, I read several books about college teaching and discussed teaching with my GTS cohort. Then I read Palmer’s book, which inspired me to be myself and to be honest about who I am. Later in the class I talked with my students about my accent and encouraged them to correct me or slow me down if I was not speaking clearly. I also began to focus more on delivering my own understanding of the subject rather than mimicking others. After this, I felt relaxed and had extra energy to motivate learning in class. In the end, the class went well. The tips I share below really helped me a lot in my teaching. You may also find them useful, especially if you are an international teacher as well.

  1. Speak Slowly. Most international teachers will have an accent to which students need time to adjust. Speaking slowly during the class helps them to understand the content, especially when you are covering the new concept or key idea.
  2. Use more words than equations. Due to different education systems, some math equations, which seem intuitive to international teachers, may not be obvious to the students. Therefore try to use more examples, graphs or tables to illustrate the idea.
  3. Less is more. “Don’t put too many ornaments on the Christmas tree.” This is a quote from Dr. Michael Ellerbrock, who won several teaching awards at VT. Don’t try to cover too much. Students will end up only remembering a few of them. Find one or two key concepts you want to cover, and then keep emphasizing this content throughout the class.

As a teacher coming from a different cultural and educational background, I am aware that there are more things I need to think about in teaching. That is why I am taking Contemporary Pedagogy. I am sure that most of you (my readers) once sat in an international teacher’s class as a student. What was your learning experience with that teacher? How do you think of their teaching? Is there anything else about them I did not mention in this blog, that you feel is important? You are more than welcome to comment on your experience to help me (and other international teachers) to improve and to help our future students to learn.

Two Challenges of Authentic Assessment

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The readings of this week remind me of Bloom’s Taxonomy, where it categorizes learning into 6 cognitive learning levels, from rudimentary learning to advanced learning: remember, understand, apply, analyze, create and evaluate. The traditional assessment focuses more on checking the cognitive learning level 1-3 (remember, understand and apply), while the authentic assessment focuses more on the level 4-6 learning (analyze, create and evaluate).

 

This authentic assessment is more time consuming than the traditional one, as Lombardi and Oblinger also mentioned in their paper, therefore it is harder for professor to adopt it given the time constraint within current tenure track evaluation system. I know most university offers position of instructor, who serves 100% duty in teaching. By doing that, the teachers can spend more time in designing the classes and assessing students’ performance to facilitate higher cognitive learning. This 100% teaching based placement is good. But the fact is people still value research higher than teaching. If instructor doesn’t obtain similar recognition as the research based professor in their tenure track (if there is one), then it would be a discouragement for the 100% teaching based instructor. So the way I see this change from traditional assessment to authentic assessment is more of the evolution of the university assessment system on teachers and professors as a whole, rather than the change of teachers alone.

 

The second challenge comes from the subjectiveness in authentic assessment. The evaluation of cognitive learning level 4-6 is more subjective than the traditional one. Therefore we would always assume that the teacher would be at a better (or higher) position to evaluate students. However, this won’t always be true, especially in fields like arts. I am even more suspicious as I read “Imagination First” by Eric Liu and Scott Nppe-Drandon. The authors try to demystify imagination. But the authors failed to say that imagination is judged by what standards. The appreciation of imagination is even more subjective than the authentic assessment. Therefore who would have the authority to judge?  What if the teacher fails to notice the value of the assessments of a genius?  Like Van Gogh, whose painting was not appreciated by audiences of his time, thus led a poor and miserable life. Those are the questions I think we, as a teacher, need to keep in mind when we assess students.

 

Change “is” into “may be” ? Maybe…..

 

Honestly, I agree with most of the opinion mentioned in this week’s reading. Teaching is a process of inviting. By teaching the knowledge, we are inviting the students to vigorously participating in the learning and at the same time developing their own understanding. Mindful learning requires mindful teaching and mindful textbook to open the possibility for student’s mental engagement. How to frame knowledge in an inviting way? To me, that’s a crucial and artful skill.

 

However, in the book the author mentioned the way they frame a textbook into a mindful textbook seems contradictory to what I learnt in writing. In the book, the author gives example of change “is” in textbook into “may be”. But, in my own experience in writing papers or essays or dissertations, I was recommended (both by my professor, or other writing instructions) to write in affirmative way. Otherwise, too much “maybe”, “would”, “possible” weakens my research conclusions and reduces my research significance. So I am wondering, whether this is the right way to write a textbook.

 

Some may argue that writing paper is different from writing a text book. But almost all text books are writing based on results from published research papers. It will be wield when the paper says “is” while the book says “may be”. I understand the need to open student’s mind in teaching, to invite their participation. So when the textbook says “may be”, it leave room for students own exploration. But if all knowledge is delivered in uncertainty, at least, as a freshman, I will feel frightened.

 

In my opinion, for certain basic knowledge, which requires understanding and comprehension, we need to state in affirmation. So that students, at the entry level, will have a clue on the structure of the subject. After that, for knowledge requires higher level of learning such as application, evaluation and creation, which is naturally conditional, we can adapt conditional statement to engage students.

The Pros and Cons of Connected Learning and How Can We Prepare Ourselves in This Trend

I tried to find a clear definition of Connected Learning (CL), but all I found is quite ambiguous. People mainly talk about what it will involve, what’s the core values and what’s the principles but not exactly what it is. In my understanding, CL is a broad concept contrasting the traditional learning model. There is no particular rule or formula to follow; rather it is a discretional model that uses all available resources to facilitate learning.

Comparing with traditional learning model, CL has its advantages. Firstly, it is more student-centered. The traditional learning model is more of teacher-centered, that is, teacher lectures on what they think is important. This is one-direction learning, from teacher to students. In the CL model, it is multi-direction learning. It can be teacher to students, students to teacher and even students to students. This CL promotes the students’ learning incentives.

Secondly, CL follows the cognitive learning process of the students, and adapts the teaching method accordingly. The future students in high education are the new millennium generation. This generation (and some of us as well) possesses its own features: grown up with sophisticated computer skills, surrounded by social media in their daily lives. They learn and share information through social network, search and explore thing that interested them through internet. In some sense, they are self-centered.  They are used to learn through images than words. Adaptation of social network or video/image that they are used to in teaching will help to facilitate their learning.

It is always exciting to have the opportunity to try new teaching model and apply new technology. But everything comes at a cost. My biggest concern of CL is the opportunity cost of time for teachers to adapt the new technologies. It is so easy to get lost in fancy technology. I think the core part of teaching is the content/subject/knowledge, and technology is just a tool that may help in facilitating the teaching and learning. So I would suggest using new technology with caution.

Given CL as an inevitable trend, my final thinking about CL is how can we prepare ourselves to future success in this trend. The most important one is to cooperate with expertise from other fields with an open mind. A successful CL teaching model is a hybrid of expertise from all fields. We all have limited time and cannot learn everything by ourselves. Everyone has their competitive advantage. Sometimes the young TA is better equipped in certain knowledge than the teacher. We want a close team work that each one is compensating the skill set of others rather than struggling by ourselves and learning all skills that take forever..