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International GTA's get language training

By Susan Trulove

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 03 - September 7, 1995

Are international graduate teaching assistants screened and trained? Yes, indeed. Virginia Tech's language requirements for international teaching assistants (ITA's) are higher than at many institutions and faculty members' efforts to provide training are worthy of praise, says Faculty Senate President Tom Sherman.

Sherman is emphatic that he did not do a study or a report or anything so formal. But when President Paul Torgersen twice in one day suggested that the faculty "could and should" do more to assure the language skills of ITA's, Sherman decided to actually learn what faculty members are doing. His investigation took him to Don McKeon, director of English as a Second Language and GTA Training, Bob Olin in math, and Joe Merola in chemistry.

It turns out faculty members are doing quite a bit to screen and prepare ITA's and have been for almost a decade.

"The efforts are far from perfunctory," says Sherman.

All GTA's have an opportunity to receive training, and the departments that make the most use of GTA's--math and chemistry--not only take advantage of the Graduate School's training programs but have extensive programs of their own.

For ITA's, training is required. "There is a thorough ITA training program in place," Sherman said.

"The language requirement to come here is high, and even higher for those intending to teach. McKeon has a stringent communication test, then the students receive training from the Graduate School. And the departments have additional training and mentoring to make sure communication skills are accurate," says Sherman.

"What else would you do?" he asks.

He said there are not actually many complaints, "and those we do receive are contaminated" by the student's lack of preparation for the class or poor attendance. "But if there is a genuine problem, it will be addressed." To begin with, McKeon will visit a class or send a monitor if there is a report of a problem.

Sherman's letter to the president included the following observations:

* The Graduate School screens all ITA's using a locally developed assessment for spoken English (SPEAK test). Virginia Tech uses the highest standard for certification to teach of any institution.

* All ITA's are required to complete and be certified in the Graduate School three-day GTA Fall Workshop program.

* ITA's who fail the "SPEAK" test are required to complete and be certified in English 0014. They must be present for at least six separate presentations to be certified.

* McKeon provides all ITA's with additional training in issues related to cross-cultural communication.

* The Graduate School also provides independent monitoring of ITA's as they discharge their teaching duties to ensure communication skills and to develop effective pedagogical practices.

Faculty members in chemistry and math take further steps to ensure that ITA's communicate effectively. (I suspect these departments represent well efforts made by faculty throughout Virginia Tech.)


* First year ITA's are not assigned to teach.

* All ITA's (and all graduate students) are required to present a lecture to a small committee of professors to ensure competence in communication and teaching abilities. Those who fail are not assigned to teach.

* All ITA's (and all graduate students) apprentice with mentor professors. (The students assist their mentor professor with all instructional responsibilities and present at least two lectures, supervised by the professor. Those who fail are not assigned to teach.)

* Senior GTA's hold a communication and cultural-exchange seminar with the international students who plan to be GTA's to aid in the development of conversational skills and to share information about the culture of U.S. universities, as compared to universities in other countries.

* All ITA's have faculty mentors once they are assigned teaching duties.


* The department has a policy to recruit native speakers as a first priority (the GA stipend in chemistry is at the 45th percentile nationally so they are at a competitive disadvantage).

* The department has a higher TOEFL score for admission than the university (600+).

* An ITA training program is provided in addition to the Graduate School program.

* Merola and McKeon evaluate several presentations made by every ITA for language and teaching skills. Those who are not satisfactory are not assigned to teach.

* All ITA's are evaluated in their teaching assignments by an independent observer from McKeon's office for language skills, communication skills, and pedagogy.

Sherman concludes, "We can be proud of our faculty members, their efforts, and their successes. ITA's make up a small proportion of our GTA's but clearly contribute to the ongoing work of the faculty. They appear to pose no threat to any student who wishes to learn and the faculty appears both concerned and vigilant to identify and correct language-related problems that do occur."