Teaching Overseas #3: ESL in Asia

4:00 AM Sarah Koves 0 Comments

This is #3 in a series of interviews that I have conducted with teachers that have or are teaching overseas.  This is a topic that is dear to my heart for several reasons.

There was an opportunity to student teacher in England the semester that I did my student teaching, but I didn't even apply. I now with that I had.

I was accepted to the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program in 2009. After receiving my placement, I had to withdraw because the school I was working for laid me off. 

Lastly, one of my three brothers, who you met in POST #1, is currently teaching English in Saudi Arabia. I was there when he got on that plane in the wee hours of the morning, and his messages home inspired me to seek out teachers that have or are teaching overseas to have them share their experiences with my readers.

I would like to welcome Susan from The ESL Nexus

Hi!  I’m Susan from The ESL Nexus, which is a TpT store with resources for anyone who works with English Language Learners.  For 25 years, I was an ESL teacher at universities in China and Indonesia, language programs in the U.S., and at a public school in Massachusetts. 

What is your is your background and teaching experience?

I’ve taught students ranging from kindergartners to high school students to professors to businesspeople and learners who were absolute beginners in English to students at an advanced level who wanted to reduce their accents.  

I have also been a teacher trainer, presented at professional conferences, published articles in education journals and books, and published an online journal for English Language Learner teacher trainers.  I have an undergraduate degree in anthropology and two master’s degrees, one in international administration and the other in teaching English to speakers of other languages.

Where are you currently teaching?

I am not currently in the classroom but in my most recent position, I taught ESL to students in Grades 3 – 8 at a public school in Massachusetts.  It was a suburban district north of Boston and the majority of ELLs were native Spanish speakers, primarily from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.  

At that school, I taught students whose native languages were also Turkish, Japanese, Gujarati, Polish, Vietnamese, Russian, Mandarin Chinese, Haitian Creole, and more.  But less than 5% of the total student body was classified as English Language Learners in 2015.  I taught a mix of English language development classes to the elementary ESL students and social studies classes to the middle school English Language Learners.

Why did you decide to teach overseas?

My goal in college was to work overseas and after I graduated, I joined the Peace Corps.  I served in Sierra Leone and years later, when I became interested in teaching English to speakers of other languages, it was only natural that I go abroad again.  

I wanted to work in less-developed countries and, in looking at the job market for teachers of English, China was the obvious choice.  It didn’t hurt that Chinese is my favorite cuisine!  

I actually obtained my first China teaching job through a family connection which, as I soon found out, was the ideal way because it brought benefits that other teachers didn’t have.  I went to a university in central China independently--that is, I was not affiliated with a U.S. organization--but because of the connection I had, I was treated very well.  As a result, I loved the two years I spent in the country.  

Subsequently, I worked in Indonesia for one year at a university in Borneo and a few years later worked to a different university in China as a teacher trainer for 18 months.

What was your favorite thing about teaching overseas?

What I loved about working overseas was the opportunity to see how people in other parts of the world lived – that was the anthropologist in me!  Learning about different cultures was fascinating. 

 I also enjoyed teaching overseas because I knew that I was contributing to the education of people who would then go and make their own contributions to society.  

And I also liked the challenge of learning another language and being able to use it to travel around and see more of the countries I was working in.

What are challenges have you faced teaching overseas?

Learning Chinese (Mandarin, in my case) was my biggest challenge.  I had always lived in places where, if I didn’t know the language, at least I could look up the words in a dictionary.  But until I learned how to look up Chinese characters, I was totally illiterate and it was a very odd feeling not being able to read any of the signs I saw.  On the other hand, when I did eventually learn some characters, I felt a huge sense of achievement.  

Another challenge I faced was learning the sociocultural norms for interacting with colleagues and people I met.  In both China and Indonesia, the concept of “face” was hugely important and I had to always keep that in mind, not just when working but also when I went shopping or traveling or when just spending time with friends.

What do you believe is one thing  U.S. teachers can do to improve learning based on your overseas experience?

If I had to pick one thing that U.S. teachers can do to improve learning based on my overseas experience, I would say it’s get to know your students by doing extra-curricular activities with them. 

 In China, it was expected that as a foreign teacher, I would socialize with my students to give them additional opportunities for practicing their English.  But I didn’t look at that as an imposition.  Rather, it was an opportunity for me to get to know my students and learn more about the world they lived in.  

Teachers in the U.S., regardless of whether they work with college-age students or primary and secondary students, benefit greatly when they get to know their students outside of class.  Being able to see students as people who have lives beyond your classroom not only can help teachers relate to their students better, it’s also fun!

Be sure to check out The ESL Nexus' store and this feature product.

Check out 

week one with my brother who is teaching English in Saudi Arabia 

week two with my sorority sister in India.

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