NNEST of the Month
jtanka [at] unex [dot] ucla [dot] edu
Ana Wu: Could you tell us your background and explain why you wanted to be an educator?
Ms. Tanka: I was born and spent the first 17 years of my life in Budapest, Hungary. When I immigrated to the U.S. in the late ‘60s, I was a teenager mainly preoccupied with learning the language, fitting into a new culture and then navigating a very different higher education system than what I had been familiar with. Becoming an educator didn’t occur to me until the confluence of some fortuitous events in my senior year at UCLA. One night I decided to sit in on an ESL class that my mother was attending at a local adult school. As a second language learner, I knew when I saw good teaching, and this wasn’t it. To my amazement, the teacher was a high school math instructor moonlighting in an ESL program, without any training or any inkling about how to help a group of working adults communicate in a new language. I remember being frustrated, thinking that I could do a better job teaching this class just by virtue of having been an ESL student myself. Then around that time, I happened to meet a graduate student who was completing her M.A. at UCLA’s TESL Department (now Applied Linguistics). When I found out that there was such a major as TESL, it was one of those ‘ah ha moments’ for me. It suddenly became clear that teaching ESL was what I wanted to do.
Ana Wu: You immigrated to the USA at the age of 17. Did you speak English when you first came here? How was your experience of adjusting to the culture and being accepted by your classmates?
Ms. Tanka: I spoke no English at all when we arrived here. I came on a Monday and enrolled in a local high school on Wednesday, where I was placed in the lowest level of their NES classes. “Non English Speaking” was the designation they used back then. My classmates were international students, of course, including a couple of Hungarians, who helped me overcome some of the initial and inevitable culture shock. I recall being bewildered by the entirely strange system of “class periods” where students would go to a different class taught by a different teacher each hour rather than staying together in one room, with teachers coming to them. Overall, however, the adjustment went quite smoothly, and I learned enough English to be mainstreamed after a semester. My American classmates were very welcoming, fascinated by a refugee from a communist country in their midst, inviting me for sleepovers – another strange custom I remember being puzzled by. Academically, I soon found most classes too easy, about two years behind what I had learned in my Hungarian high school.
Ana Wu: Your first textbook was Interactions I – A Listening/Speaking Book (now in the 5th edition), first published in 1985 for the Interactions/Mosaic Series. Since then, you have written three successful books.
a.How did you first come upon the idea of writing a textbook? How long did it take from the time you started to write until it was published?
Ms. Tanka:Initially, a colleague and I had an idea for a completely different project – video based lessons on controversial issues. The idea grew out of our shared classroom experiences and successful conversation lessons that we thought publishers might be interested in. When we shopped the proposal around, one publisher showed mild interest but suggested that we temporarily shelve the project and instead join a group of authors to write the listening/speaking section of a new academic textbook series already slated for publishing. My colleague and I jumped at the chance – one of the best decisions I’ve made in my professional life.
The first manuscript (Level 1 of Interactions) took approximately a year to complete and an additional year in production before it was published. This seems to be the general time line for most textbooks, from the time the authors sign a contract. Of course much more preliminary work goes into it from inception until the signing of the contract.
b. As an experienced writer, do you still face challenges in your writings? If yes, do you think that these challenges are language/nativeness related? And how do you overcome them?
Ms. Tanka: My challenges in writing textbooks lie mainly in the area of trying to stay fresh and relevant to the ever-changing ESL market while keeping my materials methodologically sound. After living and working in an English speaking environment for over 40 years, my language abilities /non-nativeness have pretty much ceased to be an issue. Yet, I have not become entirely complacent about this; still, to this day, I feel most confident when I’m able to work side by side with a native speaker co-author.
Ana Wu: What advice would you give to NNESTs who want to get started writing a textbook?
Ms. Tanka: I would give the same advice to NNESTs as to anyone else who wants to write a textbook: draw on your teaching and your own language learning experience as to what works in the classroom. Then survey the textbook market to see if existing texts already address what you’re proposing to write. In other words, is there another book or multi-media program that does it just as well or better than what you can produce? My second advice is to team up with a co-author or a team of authors, preferably people with compatible temperaments, work ethic and creative ideas. For NNESTs, a native speaker co-author provides an added advantage. I’ve found the give-and-take between my coauthors and me tremendously rewarding, creatively energizing and ultimately resulting in a better product.
Ana Wu: You have been working at the UCLA Extension American Language Center for 30 years. As a previous Acting Director and current member of the Recruiting Committee, what advice would you give to NNES applicants when applying for a job (from writing a letter to preparing for an interview) at an IEP institute?
Ms. Tanka: Since a resume provides the first impression of a candidate, I can’t overemphasize the importance of proofreading a resume and cover letter before sending them. As an NNES, I have never sent out a resume without asking a native speaker (or two) to look over what I’ve written, if for nothing else than to spot possible typos. Errors in these introductory documents can be an immediate turn-off, perceived as a sign of sloppiness or downright incompetence. I’m not saying we’ve never interviewed candidates who had spelling errors or missing articles in their writing, but these errors definitely act as red flags. On the other hand, do not try to sound overly polished in your writing, lifting paragraphs from ESL methodology texts, elaborating extensively on your teaching philosophy. You will have plenty of chances to discuss your views on classroom methodology during the interview. I think the same qualities that make you a good classroom teacher should shine through during the interview: be personable, confident, sincere and knowledgeable. These qualities are not language dependent. Treat the interviewer as a colleague who is familiar with and sympathetic to NNESs’ challenges. We know that most NNESTs bring a wealth of experience to the job, so we’re willing to overlook minor errors or a slight accent if you’re a good fit for the job. On the other hand, don’t take it personally if you are not hired due to lack of accuracy/fluency in English. In IEPs, there is heightened sensitivity to customer satisfaction; rightly or wrongly, our students expect (and often demand) to learn from instructors with native or near-native English proficiency, and our hiring practices reflect this market demand.
My final advice regarding the interview process is to learn as much as possible about the prospective job and institution ahead of time. My last question during an interview is usually, “Do you have any questions for me?” I’m always most impressed with candidates who have specific questions to ask about our curriculum, schedule, faculty and working conditions; it shows that they’ve gone to our website and done their homework. In other words, they’ve invested some time as a sign of sincere interest.
Ana Wu: Thank you for this interesting interview!