NNEST of the Month
Shu-Chun Tseng is currently a Chinese teacher at Warsaw Community Schools in Warsaw, Indiana. She completed her doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction with a Concentration in Language Education at Indiana State University in 2011. Her dissertation focused on NNESTs’ identity transformation while pursuing Master’s degrees in the United States. Her research interests include teacher identity, learner identity, NNEST issues, teacher education, and professional development.
NNEST blog June interviewer: The NNEST Blog Editorial Team
Questions by Terry Doyle, ESL Instructor at City College of San Francisco
1. Tell us about your educational, linguistic, and teaching background. For example, why did you decide to major in English in your university in Taiwan? Why did you decide to come to the United States to study for an MA and PhD? Was there any particular reason for choosing Indiana State University? Also, what experiences have you had as an English and Chinese teacher in the United States which might be interesting to readers of this blog?
I grew up in Pingtung, southern Taiwan. In Taiwan I speak Hakka with my family at home and speak Mandarin Chinese elsewhere. Other than English, I am extremely interested in learning different languages, like Cantonese, Japanese, and Korean. Language learning has been one of my passions since I was little. I earned my Bachelor’s degree in English from Tamkang University, Taiwan, Master’s degree in Linguistics/TESL and Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction with a Concentration in Language Education from Indiana State University (ISU) in Terre Haute, Indiana.
My interests in English learning started from watching Sesame Street on TV. I told my mom I wanted to learn English. Therefore, I began my English learning journey with my American teacher, Michael, when I was eight. Later on, I stopped attending English classes at nine because Michael left Taiwan. However, I did not stop my English learning journey; instead, my mom sat with me as I read my English story books whenever we had time.
My experience with my American teacher aroused my high interests in English learning due to his interesting teaching methods, such as utilizing games, story reading, and field trips. Then, I picked up studying English formally again when I entered junior high school since English was one of the required academic subjects. With a solid foundation and high interest in English, I had less difficulty in learning English than other academic subjects. Therefore, I decided to major in English when I was in high school. During my undergraduate studies at my university, I was fortunate to join the exchange student program and came to Indiana University of Pennsylvania for one year. This exchange experience encouraged me to return to the U.S. for further studies.
While attending university, I figured that I was not only interested in linguistics, but also in English teaching. Therefore, I was extremely excited to find out that Indiana State University offered a master program in Linguistics/TESL, and I was very fortunate to be accepted into the program. Enrolling in this program offered me more time to decide if I was more interested in linguistics or English teaching. Gradually, I found that I had more passion in English teaching than linguistics. That’s how I ended up in enrolling in the Curriculum and Instruction program for my Ph.D.
While in the master program, I realized that the field of Chinese teaching is growing and can be one of my options to stay in the U.S. after graduation. I began my first Chinese teaching experience in 2005 for one semester and returned again in 2007. At that time, I was just a native speaker without strong background in Chinese linguistics and teaching. With this in mind, I independently studied Chinese linguistics and teaching methods as well as actively participating in Chinese teacher organizations similar to TESOL. Therefore, I have equipped myself for being a professional in both English and Chinese teaching in the past few years.
I understand that my current Chinese teaching role may shock most people when they hear my degree concentration is in the English teaching profession. However, I see my current role in a very positive way. Based on my role as a native Chinese-speaking teacher, I am learning local American culture from different perspectives. For example, I am learning about public school culture from my students, colleagues, and administrators. In school, I am beginning to understand the typical teaching duties of a regular teacher in the United States, and I am seeing the similarities and differences between Chinese and American school systems. Besides these, I also see how ESL teachers communicate with and assist ESL students.
Additionally, I am relearning my own Chinese identity, culture, and language that I may have forgotten for a while. Due to different cultural contexts, I am learning to adjust myself to different lifestyles. To me, being a native Chinese-speaking teacher brings valuable experience to both my personal and professional life. I have strong passions for both professions. No matter what profession I choose in the future, both my native and nonnative teaching roles are very valuable to my life.
2. Your Ph. D. dissertation is about the development of teacher identity among MA TESOL students. What particular experiences and factors have been influential in your own teacher identity development both as an English language learner in Taiwan and as a graduate student, researcher, and teacher in the United States?
While in Taiwan, native speakerism prevailed, so I believed that I had to learn “authentic” English and to acquire a native-like accent from native English speakers. One of the reasons that I came to the United States was that I believed I would have a sufficient native-speaking environment to learn native-like English. However, after studying NNEST issues in TESL and Sociolinguistics courses, I began to doubt my belief in native speakerism. Questions like “does sounding like a native speaker confirm my higher language proficiency?” come into in my mind all the time. At the same time, I also observed my own English learning process as well as that of my TESL classmates and Chinese-speaking friends. I noticed that living in an English-speaking country doesn’t guarantee that a language learner can reach a higher level in his/her English proficiency and cultural knowledge. Instead, the willingness of a learner to speak the target language and to step into the local culture plays an important role in the process of advancing his/her language proficiency.
In addition, my first Chinese teaching experience in 2005 was also essential to the development of my identity as a teacher. I began reflecting on my own role as a native Chinese teacher and a nonnative English teacher. While reflecting, I had confusion and difficulty in identifying myself as a confident and proficient teacher as well as a speaker of both languages. In 2007, I began my first adventure at the TESOL convention, where the NNEST movement impressed me profoundly. Seeing many professionals working hard on NNEST issues confirmed my thoughts of going further in doing research on the identity of NNESTs.
Now, as a native Chinese-speaking teacher, my teaching goal is to help my students communicate clearly and effectively in Chinese. Accent is not the ugly piece students need to put efforts on removing when speaking Chinese; instead, it beautifully represents who they are.
3. Your research design for your dissertation is quite interesting to me since you go beyond just using “subjects” from whom you gather information for other scholars to read about but rather you set out to create “a collaborative environment” “for NNESTs to share challenges and solutions, to instill an awareness of NNESTS toward their professional identity, and to encourage NNESTs to reflect on their professional identity”? What led you to using such a participant-oriented research design? How successful do you think you have been in enabling your 7 participants to learn from your research? Are there any particularly poignant examples of how your participants were positively affected because of their participation in your research project?
One reason for this study was to make more NNESTs aware of their own self-perceptions as educational professionals. Conducting individual interviews could help me understand my participants, but it may not have helped my participants to know other similar stories and meet others with stories similar to theirs. Therefore, my committee members provided me with the suggestion of using focus group interviews. As I wrote in my dissertation, “Focus group interviews helped participants share their viewpoints and experiences not only with the researcher, but also with other NNESTs. In this way, participants gained a better understanding of self-perception as well as a realization of the perspectives of other members of the group” (Tseng, 2011).
Yes, at the end of the study, I asked my participants how my study impacted them. One of them mentioned that I did ask many questions that she had never thought about. Another participant said that my study gave him ideas beyond the questions I asked. He began thinking about his own expectations as a teacher. Therefore, I believe that my study definitely gave the 7 participants opportunities to reflect on their own stories; however, how much my study positively affected them will probably have to be the subject of further study.
4. Also, in regards to your research design, you had to decide whether to work with all NNEST MA TESOL students or not and also whether to work with students from Asian countries? How much advantage do you think it is that you share a similar background with your participants in that a few years earlier you came from Taiwan (as did 6 of your participants) to study in the same MA TESOL program? In your focus group interviews how much did you share your experiences with your participants?
Because we shared similar backgrounds, the participants of my study were more comfortable sharing with me and the entire group their personal joys and hardships that they were, otherwise, not able to share with professors or native-speaking classmates. In another way, they understood that they were not alone in their difficult situations. In one interview, a participant asked about the strategies that I used to face a certain situation. In addition, they also inquired about what activities I participated in while in local communities. Some of them did not know where to receive local information, about, for example, festivals, holiday, homestays, and so on.
5. In the literature on non-native teacher issues the construction of professional identity seems to be a much understudied area of research. To date, to my knowledge there is only one book about this topic: Language teacher identities: Co-constructing discourse and community by Clarke. In her dissertation Li-fen Lin (see NNEST of the Month Blog, Feb. 2012) also examined the teacher identity development of MA TESOL students, two of whom were NNESTs. What particular contribution do you think your research has added to this literature? What do you think is or are the most important future question(s) regarding the identity development of non-native MA TESOL students that need to be addressed?
The important future questions regarding the identity development of non-native MA TESOL students should be looked at in two ways: one is non-native MA TESOL students in their home countries, and the other is MA TESOL students in countries other than their own. These two contexts make huge differences in shaping and changing a teacher’s identity development. Clarke conducted his research in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) district and focused on Arabic students while Lin’s research focused on comparing NEST and NNEST’s identity construction in the same MA TESOL program located on the west coast of the United States. My study is focused on Asian populations who enrolled in an MA TESOL program in the Midwest of the United States. I think these three studies demonstrate teacher identity in three different circumstances, populations, and cultures. And, I notice that our NNEST Blog guest for May, 2012 Nugrahenny Tourisia Zacharias, conducted her research on teacher identity with 12 Southeast Asian English teachers. I think four of our studies have brought up the process of constructing and reconstructing teacher identity in different contexts. Therefore, the future question should fall on the ways of assisting non-native pre-service teachers in developing a positive self-image and encouraging them to enhance their own personal and professional credibility.
6. As an ESL teacher in a community college which is in the same city as a well known and respected MA TESOL program in a large public university, each semester I have the opportunity to work with one or more student teachers from this MA TESOL program. I think in most semesters in which I have worked with student teachers about half of the students in this MA TESOL program have been international students or immigrants, and 30 of the 40 MA TESOL students I have mentored in the past decade have been international students from Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. In reading your dissertation, I noticed that the concerns your participants mentioned such as (1) lack of self-confidence in teaching, (2) bias against non-native teachers, (3) not being prepared to be English teachers in their home countries, and (4) not being able to make friends with US-born students are some of the same ones that my international student teachers talk about. What advice can you give me on how to be a better mentor teacher? In particular, should I and if so how can I focus on their identity formation as a mentor teacher? Also, I noticed that the MA TESOL program at Midwest State University does not have practicum classes. One of your recommendations is that such an experience is very valuable for MA TESOL students. This is a very broad question, so just in terms of identity development, how do you think practicum classes are valuable to MA TESOL students?
Caring about and encouraging prospective teachers are two important characteristics of a mentor teacher. Terry, you have done a great job in these two components. Since I met you as a member of the NNEST Blog Editorial Team, you have served as a mentor teacher to me. You encourage my thoughts in my research, and you shared your experience of living in the Midwest with me to reduce the distance between you and me. Keep being the way you are. I believe your mentees will highly appreciate your caring and encouragement, just as I do.
A practicum offers MA TESOL students a different opportunity to step into local cultures. For example, the TESOL students get chances to observe and experience local ESL teachers’ or regular teachers’ teaching methods. In such an immersion environment, those MA TESOL students will be able to do more critical and reflective thinking on comparing local cultures with their own. Therefore, no matter whether they decide to return home or stay in the United States, the practicum experiences are quite valuable to their professional development.
7. Students like those in your study have special needs and challenges which unfortunately include discrimination from prospective employers and even from some prospective mentor teachers. (For example, I have heard that some ESL teachers in my college are reluctant to consider “non-native” students teachers for high level and credit classes even before they have met and interviewed the prospective student teacher.) Since I am also doing research on mentoring student teachers and have recorded interviews with many of my student teachers, I have come to know quite well the situations, the feelings, the challenges, and the anxieties of these students as they complete their MA TESOL programs and prepare to look for employment. In bad economic times, discrimination always becomes more intense, and so discrimination against non-native teachers in our field becomes stronger. Because I have also come to know the MA TESOL program in which these students study (I myself am a graduate of this program), I have come to feel strongly that this MA TESOL program needs professors like you who have conducted research on students in a similar MA TESOL program, who know the literature of applied linguistics and especially of teacher identity development very well, who have taught ESL classes in the United States, and most important who know first hand the challenges, anxieties, and feelings of international MA TESOL students. Could you explain what you would bring to MA TESOL programs like the one described in your research if you were hired as a professor, why you are a perfect fit to teach in such an MA TESOL program, and indeed why such MA TESOL programs SHOULD HAVE at least one professor like you on their faculties?
A non-native professor in an MA TESOL program might serve as a role model to their non-native students. Students may feel more comfortable and at ease. Take my current story as an example; I am the only Chinese teacher in the school district. As most people are aware, many Chinese people immigrate to the U.S. to have a better life for their next generation because we Chinese people believe that obtaining a better education will change our social mobility.
In the town where I live at present, there are some American-born Chinese students. Some of their parents do not have a higher education and are not highly proficient in English. When I first met one of these Chinese parents, she told me that her daughter rejected speaking Chinese at home. In most situations, the parents talk to children in Chinese and the children respond in English. However, this communication style results in a huge communication gap between parents and children. To have better mutual understanding, this parent pushed her daughter to take Chinese. Her daughter resisted it strongly in her inner-heart. At the beginning of the semester, when other students asked this girl if she is Chinese, she answered that “I am American.”
Within a year of learning Chinese in the school, this student had significantly changed her attitude toward and perceptions of Chinese learning and being Chinese. Her mother told me that she is very happy with her Chinese learning now and is very willing to go to the next level. When I see this student, she is always happy to tell me that she encourages her friends to learn Chinese and is very proud of teaching her friends Chinese. Most important, in the lesson of “what’s your nationality?”, she responded proudly, “I am Chinese.”
This story encouraged me to have a meaningful reflection on my own role in such a small town in the Midwest. Seeing me as a role model may bring incentives to this girl and encourage her to reflect on her own Chinese identity. My role as the only Chinese teacher in a small Midwestern town is pretty significant to a certain population. Therefore, with the above story in mind, I think hiring a nonnative professor in an MA TESOL program definitely increases the self-confidence of those nonnative students and provides them encouragement. Nonnative professors better understand and empathize with the challenges of nonnative students while providing them needed assistance.
8. In the literature on non-native teacher issues, there seems to have been a progression from stating and interrogating the problem that there is bias and discrimination against non-native teachers (Phillipson, 1992; Canagarajah, 1999) to investigating and re-visiting some linguistic concepts such as “proficiency” using a NNEST lens (Mahboob, 2010), to investigating the identity development among NNES MA TESOL and teachers, to recommendations on how NNES MA TESOL students and novice teachers can enhance their personal and professional credibility. You conclude your dissertation in this way saying that your participants should be “made aware of a variety of coping strategies” (Wu, Liang, and Csepelyi, 2010). Also, the comments of your participants mention that part of the reason they came to study at a university in the United States was to improve their language skills as well as their teaching skills. In your opinion, do you think it is the role of MA TESOL programs to offer course on advanced language skills as well as coping strategies?
This is a very good question. Offering an advanced language skills class to nonnative speaking students would be a great idea. Based on the participants’ and my own experience, attending free conversation classes outside school is valuable; however, as time goes by, these classes cannot fulfill our linguistic needs. The benefits of attending these classes are not to improve language skills, but to meet new friends and to learn local culture. Because they offer only limited language resources, highly proficient learners very easily lose their interests in attending such classes. If MA TESOL programs could offer a class to students to advance their English to a higher level in a collaborative environment, that may increase their confidence in being English teaching professionals.
9. I was born and grew up in the Midwest. I was born in Ohio, grew up in Michigan and Indiana, and came to California at the beginning of my senior year in high school. I know that the winters in the Midwestern part of the United States are long and very cold, the summers are hot and humid, and the spring is very short. I have been to Taiwan several times in July and January. I think that the coldest day even in the Northern part of Taiwan (I once stayed for two days in an unheated dormitory for young Buddhist student monks on the northern tip of Taiwan in early January.) would be considered a warm day in Michigan or Indiana. I also know that in these states there are few if any Chinese food stores, Chinese restaurants with “real” Chinese food, and other support for international students from Taiwan and other Asian countries who naturally sometimes get homesick. How were you able to adapt to such a different environment? What coping strategies did you use? How did living in such a place with different weather and little food and other things you were used to in Taiwan affect your ability to study? Would you recommend others from Taiwan and other countries to choose such a university to study for an MA TESOL degree or might you advise them to choose a university in a city like San Francisco or Los Angeles?
Living in the States actually develops my life skills in many aspects, such as cooking, driving, planning trips, house-keeping, and so on. While in Taiwan, I was pretty weak in life skills due to family protection and the convenience of the entire environment. For example, I didn’t know how to cook and was afraid of cooking. As you mentioned in your question, it’s a little bit hard to buy authentic oriental food in the Midwest. However, I started to learn how to survive with the limited resources I have. I think human beings obtain survival skills naturally when they live in a different environment other than their own.
As for the weather, I had been looking forward to seeing snow since I was little because there’s no snow in Taiwan. Therefore, I am pretty happy to live in a state that has snow. Additionally, I am also very satisfied with the indoor heaters in every building. In Taiwan, our winter is not as cold as here; therefore, people do not have built-in heaters in every building. Therefore, in Taiwan winter is the season that I do not like because we always have to wear a lot at all times. In Indiana having indoor heaters and seeing beautiful snow scenes are my two favorite things in winter.
I have been to those big cities on the East and West Coasts a couple of times. I enjoy my visits there. It’s very convenient to live there and easy to get authentic food. However, the life style and pace there doesn’t meet my personal preferences anymore. After many years of living in the Midwest, my personality has adopted a Midwestern style. I am becoming a laid-back person and enjoy seeing a large, blue sky every day. Regarding cultural aspects, cultures in the coastal areas and the Midwest are totally different. In my opinion, the Midwest still preserves traditional American farm-based culture, while the coastal areas have a diversity of well-established foreign cultures. Unlike big cities, the small-town culture is very friendly and provides many opportunities to engage in conversations with local people. Living in the Midwest allows me to gain more understanding of the area’s history and traditions. I enjoy my stay in the Midwest a lot. If there were a second chance, I would prefer returning to the Midwest rather than going to another area of the United States.
I understand that many people from Taiwan may prefer going to coastal areas than the Midwest due to the lifestyle and convenience. No matter which location one chooses, keeping a positive and open mindset is essential in order to survive in a different environment. One must be willing to extend their friendships to various cultural, racial, and ethnic groups. Developing personal interests, such as sports is also crucial. One should never hesitate to ask questions in any circumstance and should always appreciate the life they are experiencing.
Questions by Ana T. Solano-Campos, PhD Candidate at Emory University
10. In your study on the professional identity development of NNEST students in TESOL programs in the United States you found out that “the participants did not possess a high awareness of the importance of professional identity while living in their home countries, and this professional identity was better developed through a master’s TESOL program in the United States” (p. 101). Why do you think this was so, and in what ways can countries around the world better equip their TEFL programs to develop students’ professional identity as English teaching professionals in their home countries?
Several elements, like family responsibility and the focus of a program, could contribute to this phenomenon. In my study, one participant mentioned that she was not able to attend many seminars on professional development due to her family responsibilities. Family is the first priority in her life, so she did not have much spare time to devote to her professional development (Tseng, 2011). Additionally, an undergraduate program plays an important role in shaping prospective teachers’ professional identity. For example, the undergraduate program I attended in Taiwan was the English Department, and the main focuses of their courses were on English literature and linguistics. The English teaching course was taken as an elective. Therefore, this was not a teacher education program that prepared me for English teaching; instead, it provided me the base of English literature, linguistics, and teaching. Therefore, I had very little awareness of identity in being a professional teacher when I entered my master’s TESL program in the United States. Things may have changed differently as time goes by, and I am not very clear about how current TEFL programs in East Asian countries equip their students. However, this is a very valuable question on which we should conduct further research.
11.Shu-Chun, you mentioned that “in the world of English learning and teaching, NNESTs place the self in two positions: one as a language learner and another as a language teacher” (p. 2). Are these competing or complementary positions? In what ways have you seen this reflected in the participants in your study and in yourself?
The two positions should be considered complementary. A teacher has to enhance his/her credibility in the target language in order to meet student needs. In my study, my participants mentioned that parents and students, especially in a private academy, pay more attention to the way the teacher is teaching and also his/her accent (Tseng, 2011). This reveals that parents and students focus on speaking and listening as well as on a teacher’s teaching style while their children or they are learning English. Looking at the personal expectations of my participants, I notice that they expected themselves to improve a lot in speaking and listening. In addition, they were also eager to learn more teaching methods to advance their teaching skills. Therefore, I believe that to be able to meet student needs, teachers have to keep learning in order to enhance their teaching skills and credibility as teachers.
One interesting thought came up in my mind while thinking of how to answer your question. A language teacher, no matter native or non-native, is a life-long language learner. Language is living, and is changing every day, especially with slang and colloquial language. Based on my role as a Chinese teacher, I have to read newspapers and magazines every day to keep my Chinese language up-to-date, so I know current and popular slang prevalent in China and Taiwan. Therefore, I conclude that identifying the self as a language learner and as a teacher is complementary.
Special thanks go to the NNEST Blog Editorial Team for offering me this interview opportunity. Also, I would like to use this chance to show my greatest appreciation to the following personnel for their continuous support and encouragement: Dr. Leslie Barratt, Dr. Sue Kiger, Dr. Betty Phillips, Dr. Cecil Nelson, Dr. Karen Liu, Mr. Christopher Hindsley, and the colleagues at Warsaw Community Schools. Last but not least, Terry Doyle and Ana T. Solano-Campos, thank you for creating questions for me.
Canagarajah, A. S. (1999). Interrogating the “native speaker fallacy”: Non-linguistic roots, non-pedagogical results. In G. Braine (Ed.), Non-native educators in English language teaching (pp. 77-92). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.
Clarke, M. (2008). Language teacher identities: Co-constructing discourse and community. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Mahboob, A. (2010) The NNEST Lens: Nonnative English Speakers in TESOL. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Tseng, S. C. (2011). Understanding Non-native English-speaking Teachers’ Identity Construction and Transformation in the English-speaking Community: A Closer Look at Past, Present, and Future. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Indiana State University.
Wu, A., Liang, J., & Csepelyi, T. (2010). Coping strategies for NNES teachers’ development. In A. Mahboob (Eds.), The NNEST lens: Non native English speakers in TESOL (pp. 202-221). Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.