Advocating for TESOL as a Profession

In my day job, I direct the Center for English as a Second Language (CESL) at the University of Arizona (UA). The UA is a large, public university located in the city of Tucson in southern Arizona about 100 kilometers from Mexico. We have about 37,000 undergraduate and graduate students on campus and typically 300–400 students at any given moment studying in programs associated with our ESL center. I have been the director of this center for about 9 years. During that time we have increased our ESL student population and received CEA accreditation for all of our programs. But surviving those 9 years has been quite the challenge.

We are situated on a large campus in a state that is often not terribly welcoming to higher education (no portion of CESL is funded by the state of Arizona, and a decreasingly smaller portion of the university budget is funded by the state). The past 4–5 years have been terribly difficult for me as a university administrator because budgets have been shrinking, programs are being cut, and staffing is being reduced dramatically. Add to those challenges our state politics that are far from welcoming to nonnative English speakers and internationals and you get headlines not only about shrinking university budgets but also alarming stories about “undocumented aliens” and even teachers with accents! In short—not a very welcoming environment in which to be nurturing an ESL program. I knew coming into my position in 2002 as enrollments were dropping post-9/11 that things could only get better. But certainly I had no idea what the scale of that challenge would be.

One of the greatest challenges was justifying CESL’s existence as a center both professionally and programmatically. Not many people on campus knew who we were or even where we were located (ironically in the CESL building!). We recruit international students, but when I began we weren’t even speaking with the folks in the university international student office or the admissions office. Not being known on campus, of course, meant that our expertise was completely ignored. Often we faced cases where other administrators on campus were making decisions about ESL-related matters without ever thinking to consult us (like what would be an appropriate TOEFL score for admissions or how to assess a graduate student’s English proficiency for teaching). These slights are not unheard of but are indeed a slap in the face to our profession.

But while I was busy asserting our expertise on campus and showing off our professional work to my campus colleagues, a bigger threat was looming on the horizon—the threat of a corporate takeover. Never in my wildest dreams about directing an ESL center did I think that I, an educator with technical experience in teaching second language writing, training in grammar, and experience in promoting new methodologies, never did I think I would be fighting to establish our professional credibility to stop a corporate takeover. But indeed it happened. Not once, not twice, but several times.

Alas, we needed to survive and so I needed to fight. Each time I had to ensure that all of the top-level university administrators knew what the profession of teaching English as a second language was all about and why the expert faculty in our center were the best qualified to teach and run our center and not some outside company promising flush pockets or dazzling dollar signs.

To the outside world, our state finances and therefore our university finances appeared to be crumbling, and so we looked vulnerable. The center was an easy target: A company could certainly capture the university provost’s attention by suggesting that the university increase student numbers and decrease center costs (by cutting faculty pay and benefits). But in my gut, I knew we indeed were (and are!) a profession not to be run over roughshod: We had to advocate for ourselves and our profession and save our center.

We were lucky. We shined up our reputation just enough on campus to save the CESL. But we had to do that by repeatedly demonstrating that we are English language teaching professionals, that TESOL is a profession, and that indeed we should be recognized as professionals. We made ourselves indispensable; we were highly visible, and showed that we are entrenched in research and use our funding wisely.

Not everyone is so lucky. And certainly this fight to establish professional credibility is a much tougher battle in other parts of the world, but the bottom line is still the same: TESOL is a profession. We have a body of knowledge; we conduct research to gain more insight. We have qualifications, and we have reason to be proud of the work that we do. We advocate for our students but what I’ve learned these past few years is that we have to advocate for ourselves as well.

In my plenary on 21 March, I’ll be talking about how, in my view, we as a profession have moved from hiring native-English-speaker–backpacker teachers to developing elaborate credentialing systems with dedicated professional educators in our field. My talk comes out of the experience I’ve just described of having to justify our ELT profession to my own university in the face of adversity. We all need to know who we are and why we are a professional force to be reckoned with. My father taught me to stand up for myself. We as TESOLers need to do that, too. And when we do, we’ll find some truly amazing professionals standing with us.

Dr. Panferov will deliver the Presidential Plenary, titled “Our Heritage: The TESOL Journey in Developing Great Teachers,” at 2 pm CDT, Thursday, 21 March, at the TESOL 2013 International Convention & English Language Expo in Dallas, Texas.

About Suzanne Panferov

Suzanne Panferov
Suzanne Panferov, current president of TESOL International Association, is the director of the Center for ESL at the University of Arizona and a faculty member in the MA ESL Program and PhD program in SLA and Teaching. Panferov’s research focuses on language program administration, professional development, teacher training, pedagogy, and literacy acquisition.
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4 Responses to Advocating for TESOL as a Profession

  1. Ernestine Mbacham says:

    Dear Suzanne,
    Thumbs up for advocating that TESOL be recognized as a Profession. I was a FULBRIGHT grantee and have an MA TESOL degree from the university of Nevada Reno. Even though I went through a Teacher’s Training College in my country before going through this program, I realized that after the course, I had acquired so much knowledge that my perception about the teaching and learning of English changed completely. All the fingers I had been directing at my students all pointed back at me and in almost all the papers I wrote, I virtually was looking at what I did wrong and what I should have done. This as you rightly say is because of the body of knowledge that we acquire in this field and the insights from all the research that is carried out. TESOL is indeed a profession that should be reckoned with.

    We were so devastated however that this program was cut off at the University of Nevada due to budget cuts with one of the reasons being that it is not of so much benefit to the State. We tried in vain to persuade the University to consider the long term benefits if the short term benefits were not really of much significance. During this process of sensitization, I realized that most Americans did not know about the American Lottery program. This program gives permanent residency to thousands of immigrants from many countries who in due time become US citizens. Many of these potential citizens come in with a handicap in the English language. Without qualified teachers to handle this group, and considering the fact that Language is the key into all other subjects, America will be faced with a problem it would find difficulties handling. So bravo and courage!

    Ernestine Mbacham–from Cameroon

    • Suzanne Panferov Suzanne Panferov says:

      Dear Ernestine,

      You touch on some very important points. I think what is key to recognize and always remember is how complicated all of these situations are. Education (or lack thereof) always carries consequences and even a political agenda on a governmental level or even if it is just the politics between two units or personalities in a university. English is higly politicized in the US and abroad especially in terms of immigrantion, world mobility and global business. And language is very much a part of personal identity. Think also of concepts of linguistic imperialism and language loss. As professionals, we must keep these rich qualities in mind. TESOL is very much a “big picture” sort of profession. If we put our heads in the sand, we jeopardize the profession and worse yet possibly our students. Thank you for your feedback! Suzanne

  2. H. Douglas Brown says:

    Suzanne: I appreciated your synopsis here. You know this, but you are (were) one of many language institutes that got targeted by university bureaucrats. In 2000, when SFSU’s American Language Institute was summarily (without warning) taken over by the College of Extended Learning, I had numerous “fights” with Deans and Vice Presidents over their insistence on larger class sizes, much larger, plus various pay cuts. Other woes and tribulations ensued, but in the end, I think what “saved” us was the very close link with the ACADEMIC side of the university, our MATESOL program and internships offered to MATESOL Ss. The Dean of the School of Humanities and the English Dept. Chair consistently went to bat for us. Otherwise we, too, might have been a cast off into “corporate America.”

    Best wishes in your speech. I plan to attend.

    Doug Brown

    • Suzanne Panferov Suzanne Panferov says:


      You bring up a very good point. You are very right. What makes us excel and stand out are in fact our academic rigor and training. I neglected to include a description of the strategies we used during this time to tighten our academic connections with both the M.A. and Ph.D. programs here at the UA.

      I look forward to seeing you in Dallas!

      Best, Suzanne

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