TESOL members have sometimes been invited by the U.S. Department of State to serve as an English Language Fellows and English Language Specialists (formally working with U.S. Information Agency). I was fortunate enough to go as an English Language Specialist to Malaysia twice at the end of 2011. There, I presented EFL professional development workshops specifically developed for primary & secondary teachers, ELT university professors, and ELT university students in 4 Malaysian states. It was a great time!
For this blog, however, I would like to share three stories from other TESOL members who have also helped the U.S. Department of State train global audiences around the world.
Claire Bradin Siskin
Retrospective: Southeast Europe in 2005
In 2005 I had the good fortune to spend three weeks in Southeastern Europe, where I served as an English Language Specialist for the School Connectivity Project (SCP) at the invitation of the U.S. Department of State. The SCP was carried out via the Internet, and one of the main goals was to increase inter-ethnic dialogue among schools in Southeastern Europe and the United States. The SCP was a three-year project that was ably administered by Dr. Craig Dicker, at that time the Regional English Language Officer for Central and Southeastern Europe. The project involved English teachers and their students at secondary schools in Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, and the United States.
I visited schools in Romania, Albania, Montenegro, and Kosovo. I interviewed students, teachers, and administrators and conducted workshops at each school. I went to 12 schools altogether, but at several schools I met with participants from other schools in the area. I also attended and spoke at the third Annual Conference of the English Language Teachers’ Association (ELTA) in Belgrade, Serbia.
What has stuck in my memory? Although several years have passed, I can still see the faces of many students and teachers. I will never forget their warm reception and gracious hospitality that was expressed in so many ways. I especially remember the easy rapport between teachers and students. Outside a school in Montenegro, the students had decorated the walls leading up to the entrance with satirical cartoons:
I asked one of the teachers what the faculty thought about the cartoons. She smiled and said, “We teachers like it. We helped them do it!”
For many years prior to this trip, I had been advocating the value of the Internet as a tool for education and international communication. (In fact, my very first conference presentation was “Telecommunications in the ESL classroom” in 1984.) Nevertheless, I was truly amazed by the impact of the Internet on these students’ lives. I was favorably impressed with the students’ proficiency in English, and many of them declared that they had acquired it from exposure to the Internet.
The students demonstrated advanced Internet skills as well as knowledge of the latest English slang. The students seemed captivated by the Internet and seemed to regard it as something of their own that their parents and teachers hadn’t quite mastered yet. Several teachers freely admitted that the students had better computer skills than they did. This circumstance very much mirrored the situation in the United States at the time.
I enjoyed seeing presentations and hearing about everyone’s experiences in the SCP. There was clearly an interest in reaching out to the international community, but students also expressed an interest in maintaining their identity and thinking for themselves. I saw many wonderful t-shirts. My favorite was the one in Albania that said “WE ARE NOT FOLLOWERS.”
At the same time, it was clear that the students were not completely rejecting authority because they showed great appreciation for their hardworking teachers.
As elsewhere in the world, the teachers seemed to work in unfavorable conditions for very low pay. Although they faced many obstacles, they had gained the high esteem of their students. Many of their concerns were the same as those of teachers in the United States, so I felt that we shared a common bond.
I took advantage of a couple of opportunities to indulge my keen interest in archeology. In Montenegro, I saw stunning mosaics at a Roman ruin in Risan. Pictured here is Hypnos, the Roman god of sleep.
I also visited the ruins of the Roman city Ulpiana, outside Pristina.
Additional photographs, cartoons, and anecdotes are available here.
Claire Bradin Siskin directs the ESL Writing Online Workshop (ESL-WOW) Project at Excelsior College in Albany, New York. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and she works in cyberspace. A member of TESOL for more than 30 years, she now serves on the TESOL Board of Directors.
At a TESOL conference in 1992, I interviewed for an English Teaching Fellowship funded by the U.S. government, which at that time had a contract with the School of International Training (SIT). When asked for my location preference, I selected three corners of the world: Ecuador, Iceland, and Mozambique. I landed the fellowship in Mozambique, mostly because I was willing to work in a country that was at war. Plus, I was fluent in Spanish which is similar to Portuguese, so they hoped I’d be able to transfer my L2 skills to another Romance language. Having worked abroad successfully as a Peace Corps Volunteer in my second language added to their selection decision.
It was an amazing job to say the least. I worked at the University of Eduardo Mondlane, as an EFL instructor and teacher trainer. Additionally, the U.S. Embassy’s English Language Office in the capital city of Maputo helped arrange my university housing, security issues, and connections with other teachers in the area. They also provided me with numerous resources for making presentation and planning conferences. For instance, they supported my idea to host a conference call with my former university professors in an open forum for Mozambican teachers-in-training. Of course, this was in the early 90s, so there wasn’t any video-conferencing or they would have agreed to that, too.
Teaching conditions at the university were definitely third-world: no window panes or screens to keep the dust out, sometimes no running water to wash hands or flush toilets, and frequent power outages. Most importantly, transportation was limited. Given these hardships, one must wonder why anyone would want to work there. Well, I knew from my Peace Corps experience that no matter how much I put into a job like this, I’d gain more from it; I strongly believe I have. Besides learning the language, I was immersed as a minority for the first time which was a humbling experience. Not only was I one of the few Caucasian teachers, I was also the only American teaching at the university. Mozambique was a socialist/communist country undergoing political change. The university received visiting professors from Russia, Cuba, and the former Eastern bloc countries. Hence, I was also in a political minority being democratic.
I witnessed an amazing time in Mozambican history. When I first arrived, the country was still involved in a civil war. Numerous war orphans and amputees were on the streets. During my stay, I witnessed the uneasy steps towards peace that eventually led to a peace accord and democratic elections. I saw the UN tanks replace those of their army. I experienced the rebel leader leaving the bush to reside in the city (my neighborhood). The teachers, who after 15 years of travel restrictions, were finally given the opportunity to visit their hometowns. Additionally, it was the first time that weddings and funerals were allowed to take place. Hence, it was a time of mixed emotion as many citizens of Maputo were finally able to hold these ceremonies in their villages.
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Sandra Rogers has a master’s in TESOL, as well as the TESOL certificate in the Principles and Practices of Online Teaching. She has a K-12 bilingual (Spanish) teaching certificate from the California Commission on Teaching. Her areas of expertise are in bilingual education, culture, language acquisition and development (BCLAD), writing, quality assurance, and technology. Additionally, Rogers holds K-5 teaching certificates in the states of Alabama and Florida. She’s active in the TESOL’s Computer-Assisted Language Learning Interest Section and provides professional development for the Electronic Village Online. She spends her days scoring the TOEFL and TOEIC online for ETS. Additionally, Sandra founded a nonprofit charity to help job seekers find employment utilizing social media as a career tool. Find her on twitter @teacherrogers to learn about tips on integrating technology into the classroom.
I have had two opportunities to do teaching projects as a State Department English Language Specialist, one in Tajikistan and one in Mauritania, and a third opportunity as a Fulbright Specialist in Vietnam. This blog is my chance to say a little bit about these experiences, and what I really want to say is, “Please, it was terrible, so I don’t think you should sign up and become competition for me when there is another opportunity.”
Unfortunately for my desires, I’ve got a lot of faith-based principles ringing in my ears that say, “Don’t lie,” and I think I’d better tell you the truth. I found the projects terrifically enjoyable, and I hope there will be more opportunities in the future. So, if you are considering applying for these programs, I can still give you some great advice:
Choose to specialize in an area that I know nothing about, and then I won’t have to compete with you for a placement. For example, there are projects that need experts in legal English, law enforcement English, military English, computer-assisted language learning, and Web-based learning, all areas in which I can’t claim to be an expert. Please, just stay as far as you can from my specialty, which is “teaching without electricity,” meaning teaching with really limited resources.
If you do decide to apply for the specialist program, a couple of things that I’ve learned may be useful. One is that if you get an assignment, it is unrealistic to expect the person you are communicating with in-country to know the specific needs of participants. Your contact person will do his or her best, but I’ve found it wise to assume that part of my job is to figure out the needs as well as how to meet them. Your contact may be a U.S. embassy officer who has a multiple responsibilities, including bringing in dance artists, jazz musicians, and soccer teams. My contact in Vietnam was a young woman recently hired at the offices of the Community College Association. She told me later that she’d answered my question about what they wanted with, “We hope to learn the latest techniques in teaching” because she had no idea what the real needs were.
Secondly, I’ve figured out that it’s wise to be patient about getting responses to email. The State Department employees have very full inboxes and not a lot of staff to deal with all those message. They are unlikely to send a quick, “Thanks for the note. I’ll get back to you as soon as I have a good answer.” They just get back to you when they have a good answer, which might take a while.
And finally, if you really do enjoy working with teachers who teach without electricity, and often enough without chalk, go ahead and apply. Those teachers are my heroes, the Olympic athletes of our profession, and they deserve all the help they can get, even if it does mean competition for me when hoping for these opportunities.
Nancy Ackles has her doctorate in linguistics and 30 years of experience teaching English language learners. She has taught linguistics in MATESOL degree programs, presents frequently at TESOL, and is the author of The Grammar Guide, published by University of Michigan Press.
I am a lucky woman. I was invited one day by the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) to travel abroad and share some of my teaching experience. I only asked one question, “When?”
USIA invited me to go to different parts of the world—Poland, Latvia, Russia, Georgia, Italy, Morocco, Pakistan, and the Philippines. The most unusual trips were to Siberia and Kazakhstan. I was told once that I had gained the title of “The Camper” in Washington because I was willing to go anywhere at any time under any conditions. The most fascinating trip was to Egypt during the Gulf War. However, the most memorable experiences that I had were in Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro.
Going to teach for USIA was an honor and a pleasure for a number of reasons. USIA always organizes the overseas experiences for its specialists very well. Cultural and historical information as well as a detailed itinerary are sent in advance. Topics for lectures and workshops are negotiated back and forth with a contact person in Washington and as well as a contact person in the host country and local teachers.
I was first invited to go to the former Yugoslavia in the 1970s and was fortunate to be invited to return a number of times. My final trip there was in 1991. In the former Yugoslavia, Gordana Krstic was the contact person; she worked at the U.S. embassy in Belgrade. She was a joy to work with. Gordana saw that everything was beautifully planned: hotels, meals, teaching locations, equipment, books and handouts. She made sure that the local EFL teachers were hearing about the latest and the best practices from the specialists. She arranged for me to teach in a number of different places throughout the country—from Slovenia in the north to Montenegro in the south, and from Serbia in the east to Croatia in the west. And she kept me laughing all the way.
On some of the trips to Yugoslavia, the training was given in the form of residential workshops; we worked with an invited group of teachers at a hotel or conference center over a period of two to three weeks, five days a week, and sometimes with additional sightseeing or social events accompanied by a few of the local teachers on the other two days. The specialists gave plenary lectures early in the morning, workshops before and after the noon break, and fun cultural activities (music, jokes, dancing, literature, and sharing cultural information) in late afternoon. On other occasions, Gordana arranged what felt like whirlwind tours of a region or regions. We would spend a day usually travelling by train or bus and then give a lecture and workshops; we were then up early and moving on to the next town and city to repeat the process. It was a wonderful opportunity to see the country and meet local people. We chatted and shared stories with local travelers who were happy to try out their English and teach us some Serbo-Croatian. However, not all was sweetness and light—Gordana was a hard task-master. She got maximum use of our time and worked us from morning until night. Nevertheless, the people that we were training were delightful and interested in new ideas. That made the grueling schedule well worth the effort.
In addition to the teaching, Gordana and some of the teachers planned side trips to introduce the American (and often coordinating British) teams to places of interest, such as castles, museums, markets, and parks. I also learned a lot from my British colleagues who traveled and taught with us. They shared what was going on in TEFL in England and Europe. And when our schedules permitted it, we sat in on their workshops and lectures.
As a USIA specialist, I always felt that I received and learned as much as I gave and taught. I miss those days.
Jean Bodman is Associate Professor of English as a Second Language at Union County College in Elizabeth, NJ.
Here’s a blog post that provides the job description for working as an English Language Specialist. http://blog.tesol.org/tesol-convention-blog/great-job-opportunities-at-tesol-marketplace-part-1
Thank you for your comments, Lety. These little side adventures are truly a joyous part of being in the ELT profession.
I appreciate the insights and suggestions shared in the above experiences. Looking forward to rewarding teaching experiences like these ones too.