Design Challenge: What’s the deal with teaching English abroad?

“Design Thinking” is one buzzword that’s making the rounds in education these days.  I was reminded by an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education at  At my current place of employment, we are often told to give thought to “design challenges” in our department and college.

I wanted to take this mindset and apply it to my research interest, sojourning English language teachers.  First let’s look at what design thinking is from that Chronicle article:

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I took on my dissertation because I believe one “problem” with sojourning ELTs is that the new ones, the ones fresh from college or from a previous career path, are not culturally and/or professionally prepared to teach English. For whom is this a problem?

  • People who believe importing foreign English speakers, no matter their training or lack thereof, will improve English language skills of people in their country.  Problem: caveat emptor!
  • Members of English language teaching communities, in the host country, that may view new ELTs as just there for fun.  Problem: glass ceiling of professionalism
  • Members of English language teaching communities, from the sojourners’ home countries, that may discredit overseas teaching experiences.  Problem: marginalization
  • Employers who lose students or money because their newly recruited ELT is having difficulty adjusting to one or more aspects of the culture.  Problem: culture shock

This last one has several interrelated different reasons for a new sojourning ELT’s culture shock:

  • Isolation – Perhaps the newbie likes the new environment, but cannot overcome feelings of isolation.  The participants in my dissertation study went through some type of isolation phase during the first year, but they all overcame in it in different ways.
  • Lack of support – The newbie has successfully identified the main cause of his or her culture shock, but cannot find support from friends, colleagues, or employers to overcome it.
  • One terrible incident – The newbie went through one terrible ordeal early in the transition to living and working abroad, which may negatively impact perceptions of the rest of his or her time in that situation.  Colleagues may rush to judgments and the newbie may believe it’s always that bad.

My Design Challenge

When I talk with other teacher educators or researchers in TESOL who do not exactly share the same interests, they usually say, “That’s life!” in response to the culture shock problem.  When I hear that, it helps me empathize more with those who go through feelings of isolation.  The people around you do not understand or do not want to know what you are going through.  The solution to this isolation is through finding a community of people who do understand and want to know what what it’s like to be new in a foreign country alone.  That’s one major driving force behind this blog.

The internet, especially Web 2.0, has provided sojourning ELTs platforms to share their culture shock in the same space.  I was very happy to discover groups of sojourning ELTs interacting on blogs and vlogs (video blogs thanks mostly to YouTube).  Although online communities may help with isolation, I’ve started reading about the limitations of these groups.  Is connecting via Facebook and YouTube enough to overcome feelings of isolation and loneliness?  Or is it a new expression of shared loneliness?

Although I would love to work more on this, the problem of marginalization impacts my research as the greater English language teaching community seem to be not so interested in these problems compared to many other problems in the realms of linguistics, pedagogy, and education policy.  If you disagree with this assumption, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Other Design Challenges

For me, the caveat emptor problem is a globalization issue, and many researchers have taken this problem on in different ways.  For example, Pennycook (1998) looked at the discourses of colonialism, which may have brought us to this point.  Suresh Canagarajah, Ryuko Kubota, and Adrian Holliday also write extensively on political and social impacts on the hegemony found in many contexts of English language teaching.  How globalization affects English language teaching is both a design success and a design challenge, depending on the power dynamics.  That’s way too big to tackle in a paragraph.

The other problems, glass ceiling of professionalism and marginalization, have to do with perceptions of sojourning ELTs within the greater English language teaching community.  Let me be fair in saying that non-native English speaking teachers (NNESTs) are more marginalized than most sojourning ELTs, but these categories are not mutually exclusive.  There are many sojourning NNESTs around the world.  I also realize that the image of sojourning ELTs is harmed by the naive new sojourning ELT, especially a “native speaker,” who teaches English for fun and adventure and not for a career.  My experience and my dissertation study have shown that this is true for the first year or so, but some sojourning ELTs mature into enjoying their work and pursue professional development.  The design challenge here is community building, helping to bridge an understanding of sojourning ELTs with local ELTs.  You cannot force people to work together, but I hope that a combination of research and service can build this bridge.

Do you have a story about a local ELT reaching out to a sojourning ELT?  I believe this arises naturally in some co-teaching or team teaching situations like in the JET Programme.  I’m also interested in how sojourning ELTs reach out to local ELTs in the host country.  Finally, I’d like to learn if and how sojourning ELTs get support from ELTs in their home country.  I’m kind of doing it in a passive blogging way here, but I’d like to learn more proactive ways and stories of supporting ELTs in other countries.


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