I’ve learned from and worked with Tony Silva throughout my time at Purdue. He taught about 1/3 of all the courses that I took, was on my dissertation committee, and supervised my work with him on the quarterly “Annotated Bibliography on Research in L2 Writing” for the Journal of Second Language Writing, as well as my work on a program design project. He was always exceptionally generous with his time, seeking to help his graduate students to professionalize into the field of TESOL/Applied Linguistics (ALx). He was, simply put, a force for good for his students.
Which means, I was rather surprised by his frank presentation at the 2014 Symposium on Second Language Writing (SSLW) about the state of the sub-field of L2 writing. He pulled no punches in highlighting the ways that L2 writing professionals may be, at best, forgotten and, at worst, marginalized by their institutions. This situation and shrinking education budgets contribute to a possible future where the sub-field of L2 writing is deprofessionalized and the important work of helping L2 writers gain academic literacy is diverted to underprepared instructors with no formal training in how to best work with this unique student body. Looking at the vast array of less-then-legitimate TESOL certification programs and bargain-bin hiring standards, it’s not that hard to see the same ghost dogging the steps of TESOL.
Which is why I had such a strong reaction when I was reading Zhenhui Rao and Hua Yuan’s article on native English-speaking teachers (NESTs) in China. There was nothing new about the various benefits that they extolled—I would argue that there are places where their work treads dangerously close to upholding the NEST unproblematically and unequivocally as the ideal language teacher. However, they made one crucial point that I think is worth some discussion. NESTs need training to prepare them for the classroom. And, I would argue that they need quality training.
For Rao and Yuan, their focus on training ends at saying that it should be localized training that focuses on four major areas (p. 4):
- Institutional Introduction
- Teaching Situation at the Institution
- Students’ Learning Styles
- Stakeholders Expectations
While this sort of orientation is necessary, it’s not enough. It’s certainly not enough to address the various issues with NESTs that Rao and Yuan identify. There’s nothing here about pedagogical training—talking about learning styles isn’t the same thing as talking about planning, designing, and executing classroom interventions. There’s little here about the insensitivity to students’ linguistic problems. And, there’s nothing here about negotiating culture and its effects in the classroom. So, how do we address these issues?
Certainly, Rao and Yuans recommendations make good pre-service training. But, there is a need to continue professionalizing early service teachers to have the best educational impact for the students. This must begin with a foundational knowledge of language learning and teaching. This can be done through a series of in-service trainings that add value to the work experience by preparing the in-service teacher to meet the demands of the institution, while also paving the way for future career success. Ideally, this on-the-job training should be overseen by a more senior teacher or consultant with advanced education in the TESOL/ALx. Reading and discussing seminal work from TESOL/ALx is a good place to start. Another avenue is to watch, dissect, and discuss recorded teaching samples from more expert teachers. Then, working with the trainer, the early service teachers can plan ways to apply these lessons to their own work.
For me, a vital part of any in-service training program must be reflection. Time must be made to allow the teachers to reflect on their practice and to make that reflection public. Then, as teachers encounter and share problems, they can work together to solve these issues. Public reflections do two things. First, it creates value around reflective practice. By building this time into training, and highlighting its possible effects, we can help in-service teachers to see the benefits of being a reflective teacher throughout their careers. Second, it encourages teachers to not see problems as tribulations that they must face alone, or as failures to bury in their portfolios. Rather, problems become recast as challenges to be collaboratively overcome for the good of the group. It moves the act of reflection from a mental exercise, to an applied one—going from reflection to reflexive action.
Rao and Yuan also discussed NEST/NNEST team teaching; however, they ignored the possibility of it as a training tool. This would be, to me, a fascinating possibility that could radically change the training dynamic. It would give the potentially young, monolingual, early-service NEST access to someone who has mastered the L2, who has overcome the challenges of language learning. The NNEST can become a font of experiential and cultural knowledge for the NNEST, while the NEST can share pedagogical tips and tricks that they bring with them from their own learning experiences. This can help to create reciprocity in the training process and help show that both NEST and NNEST teachers are valued by the institution. And for students in teach-taught classes, they can begin to have their assumptions about the NEST being “hands-down” the best language teacher challenged. Rao and Yuan are correct in pointing out, however, that this team teaching must cast the NEST and NNEST as equals or else the power of this opportunity will be lost.
Rao, Z., & Yuan, H. (2015). Employing native-English speaking teachers in China: Benefits, problems and solutions. English Today, 32(4), 1-7.
Silva, T. (2014). Reflections of a post-mid-career L2 writing professional on the ever-increasing challenges of working at a large public research university: Facing the specter of deprofessionalization [Keynote Address]. Presented at the 2014 Symposium on Second Language Writing. Tempe, AZ.