Pei-Chia Wanda Liao is a doctorate student in the Curriculum and Instruction program at the University of Washington-Seattle. After pursuing her Master’s degree in TESOL at the University of Pennsylvania, Pei-Chia served as an English lecturer at Wenzao Ursuline College of Languages in Taiwan for three years. At Wenzao she taught courses such as English Composition, English Reading, Advanced English Listening, and English Speaking. In 2012, she taught an undergraduate course and served as a seminar facilitator at UW discussing educational issues in K-12 in the US. Her research interests are teacher education and NNESTs’ identities. [firstname.lastname@example.org] | February Blog Interviewer: Terry Doyle
1. Tell us about your educational, linguistic, and teaching background. For example, what was your undergraduate major in your university in Taiwan? Why did you decide on that major? Why did you decide to come to the United States to study for an MA and PhD? Also, what experiences have you had as a student in the United States which might be interesting to readers of this blog?
First of all, thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to share my voice in this blog.
I grew up in Taiwan, and I have always been interested in English language learning. My parents provided me lots of interesting English learning materials when I was little, such as audio cassettes, videos, picture books with English songs and stories. I remember my sister, my brother and I were all fascinated by the stories and cartoons so we listened to or watched them again and again. Therefore, I probably started to “learn” English or acquire some English vocabulary and simple sentences when I was 4 or 5. Even though at that time English was not yet a mandatory subject in elementary schools, my sister and I went to English class in a cram school, or bu xi ban, as we say in Mandarin. Luckily, our English teachers made English learning interesting and fun by using games, songs or storytelling, and this really aroused my interest in English learning.
My strong interest in learning English continued throughout the time I was in middle and high school and then the desire to learn English prompted me to pursue Foreign Languages and Literature as my undergraduate major at National Chung-Hsing University in Taichung, Taiwan. Furthermore, my positive English learning experience with my English teachers in my K-12 experience made me firmly come to believe in the importance of English language teachers. In my fourth year of college, I took a course called Second Language Acquisition and I became very interested in exploring issues of English language education.
Finding my passion about English language education also motivated me to pursue an MA in TESOL. After completing my MA degree in TESOL at the University of Pennsylvania, I went back to Taiwan and served as an English lecturer at Wenzao Ursuline College of Languages in Kaohsiung, Taiwan for three years. During my practicum experience in my MA TESOL program (which I will describe in detail later) and my teaching experience in Taiwan, I became fascinated by my shifting identities as a NNEST and an English language learner. In addition, at Wenzao I had many opportunities to work with my colleagues and interacted with other English language teaching professionals and this experience encouraged me to pursue English teacher education as a career. This career goal also prompted me to pursue my doctoral study and conduct research regarding issues of NNESTs’ identities and language teacher education.
2. One of your topics in your dissertation study is about NNESTs’ identity negotiation. What particular experiences and factors have been influential in your own teacher identity development both as an English language learner and an English teacher in Taiwan and as a graduate student and researcher in the United States?
My practicum experience in my TESOL program has inspired me to examine issues of NNESTs’ identities. For my practicum, I served as an English volunteer teacher to adult immigrants at the National Service Center, a non-profit organization, in downtown Philadelphia. At that time, I partnered with a NEST teaching a course called “Pronunciation/Conversation”. Interestingly, I was assigned to be the main teacher and the NEST was my teaching assistant (TA). Initially I was unsure if I could play my teacher role well due to these NEST vs. NNEST and teacher vs. TA relationships.
Many researchers indicate that when comparing NNESTs with NESTs, NNESTs in general have negative perceptions about themselves on the linguistic level (about their language competence) but feel more positive in terms of pedagogical skills (Arva & Medgyers 2000; Chang et al. 2005). Through collaboration with my TA, I had the opportunity to reflect on my teaching at the linguistic and pedagogical levels. I recognized that the linguistic advantages established the flow of my TA’s instructions. In addition, the spontaneity of the target language use also contributed to the fluency of her instruction. Even though at that time I lacked linguistic advantage, I felt more competent in terms of pedagogy. Interestingly enough, this confidence in my competency came directly from my identity as an NNEST because I had gone through learning experiences similar to those of my students, and therefore I was capable of understanding and interpreting the students’ mistakes as I helped them understand differences between the target language and their native languages, especially Mandarin.
In addition, many articles in the book Non-Native Educators in English Language Teachingedited by Braine (1999) resonated deeply with my teaching experience, especially my practicum teaching experience in the US and the first year of teaching in Taiwan. For example, I was unsure if it was okay for me to say ‘I don’t know’ to my students in class if they asked me a question that I did not know the answer to on the spot. As a new English language teacher, I was concerned that the legitimacy of being a NNEST would be questioned. I also thought that I needed to be perfect at all times and I could not make any English mistakes in class. Or sometimes I would encounter a student whose English pronunciation is more-native like than mine …etc.
Overall, my teaching experience in the US and Taiwan has provided me opportunities to notice how my identities as an English educator as well as an English learner have constantly shifted. In addition, opportunities to collaborate with a NEST and teaching experiences in different contexts have inspired me deeply to explore issues related to the identities of NNESTs.
3. In a paper on your research you make use of the concept of agency, which you say “plays an important role in identity formation because it emphasizes that individuals are ‘intentional beings’”; thus, “agency rejects a structurally deterministic view of the fashioning of individuals.” One of the main conclusions of your research is that agency plays “a crucial role in transforming the perception of identity as a NNEST from a deficit-oriented view to a resource-oriented perspective.” Could you explain for our readers the importance of this concept of “agency” and how the participants in your study demonstrate their agency?
The close connection between identity and agency is noted throughout the literature on identity in teaching (Beauchamp & Thomas, 2009). In addition, identity is socially constructed because people strategically assemble and deploy different versions of selves from available resources within communities of practice (Motha et al, 2012; Steele, 2010; Weedon, 1999). In other words, a teacher may employ different selves based on available resources within one particular community and also by choosing strategies to adapt to the needs of the worlds, he or she demonstrates agency.
In my study, participants A and B are from Korea and Ukraine respectively and both are MA TESOL graduates. At present both of them teach at the postsecondary level in the US. According to the analysis of my study, both participants constantly negotiated their identities while they were in TESOL programs and also in their teaching practice. They also demonstrated agency to reposition themselves in a powerful rather than a marginalized position in order to be professional educators in the US.
For example, participant A constantly mentions her native country Korea and herself as a Korean and an immigrant as examples in class, a concept related to identity as pedagogy which will be described in question #6. “One situation I do not want to be in is to repeat being in a colonized position, just mimicking their [native English speakers’] structure and their thinking process. That is not something I want. I want to maintain my Korean way of delivering messages,” as participant A put it. Also, participant A indicated that she always feels rewarded if students show recognition of her as a NNEST in the field of education and students appreciate her own life and learning experiences. Students’ recognition and appreciation of her enable participant A to “become aware of other ways to re-script herself” (Morgan, 2004, p. 173).
Likewise, participant B also mentioned a sense of agency in his teaching context:
It is not about being native or non-native. It is about your competency…If I don’t have confidence in myself, and if I don’t appear as a confident teacher who knows what he does, and then maybe, the students will have the idea, “ok, he is a non-native speaker.” That was my concern so at the beginning I did not try to reveal that I was a non-native speaker. But if you are confident and you know what you do, you know the material, you know the class, you hold yourself to a standard, you hold your students to standard, that might work…
Participant B demonstrates agency as he starts to “position himself in a powerful rather than a marginalized subject position” (Peirce, 1995, p. 16).
Both of my participants demonstrate their agency and strive to reposition themselves as NNESTs in their teaching contexts. They also use their identities as NNESTs as their pedagogical resources, a concept which will be further described in question #6.
4. Another important concept you make use of is that of “community of practice.” Lave and Wenger (1991) say that by participating in communities of practice, individuals acquire identities and also that “learning and a sense of identity are inseparable.” Why have you decided to make use of the concept of “community of practice” in your research and how important is it in your findings?
Community of practice implies “participation in an activity system about which participants share understandings concerning what they are doing and what that means in their lives and for their communities” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 98). As Lave and Wenger (1991) put it, “moving toward full participation in practice involves time, intensified effort, broader responsibilities within the community, difficult and risky tasks, an increasing sense of identity as a master practitioner” (p. 111). In other words, by participating in communities of practice, individuals acquire identities.
This intimate relationship between identity and communities of practice is fundamentally prevalent for non-native English speaking students in TESOL programs or NNES TESOL graduates. When these teacher candidates are in TESOL programs, they participate in communities of practice that focus on language learning and teaching. As they become classroom teachers, they create communities of practice within their own teaching contexts. Therefore, by participating in the communities of practice that NNESTs inhabit or create, NNESTs construct and negotiate between different identities, such as language learners versus language educators, to be able to function and be engaged within various communities. One of the findings in my study is that in order to be able to function or be fully engaged in their communities of practice, which are their TESOL programs and their teaching contexts in the US, both of my participants use their agency to reposition themselves. In addition, both of them use their identities as NNESTs as resources while they teach.
5. You also make use of the Bourdieu’s (1977) concepts of habitus and cultural capital. According to Bourdieu, habitus refers to strategies that people develop and adapt to the challenges of the social worlds that they inhabit. You write that native speaking teachers have more cultural capital which “results in imbalanced power relations in the field of English learning and teaching as well as in the MA TESOL classrooms.” Can you share with our readers why you have chosen to use these concepts of habits and cultural capital and how they inform your conclusions?
My study examines NNESTs’ identity negotiation in their TESOL programs and in their teaching practice in the US. I drew on Bourdieu’s (1977) concept of habitus, who argues that habitus are strategies that people develop and adapt to the challenges in the social worlds that they inhabit. The concepts of developing strategies or adapting needs particularly fascinate me. Another reason why I found Bourdieu’s (1977) concept of habitus useful is because Bourdieu associates habitus with the idea of power relations. He states that certain habitus gains power because of ownership of various types of capital: economic, symbolic, cultural, and social. For NNESTs, power relations are created at various levels: between themselves and native English speaking colleagues, or between themselves and their students. Also, Amin (1997) illustrates that NNESTs’ identities are affected by students’ perceptions, and it could affect the way in which NNESTs see themselves and also could possibly influence their teaching practice.
In my study, I attempted to understand this phenomenon, that is, how identity negotiation of NNESTs might entail issues of habitus and generate complex power relations within their communities of practice. I am also prompted to explore how NNESTs demonstrate agency in order to reposition themselves in their power relations within such communities.
6. One reason that I wanted to interview you and also why I encouraged you to write an article in our NNEST Newsletter is because after hearing your presentation at the TESOL conference in Philadelphia and after you kindly shared your paper (see references) with me, I feel that I truly started to understand the significance of the concepts referred to in questions #3-5 in regards to the identity formation of novice ESL teachers and particularly the meaning and importance of “teacher identity as pedagogy”. You write that at some point during their TESOL program both of the participants in your case study “started to undergo transformation when their perceptions of their non-nativeness changed. Their non-nativeness was transformed from a deficit to an asset and then further became a resource that they can draw on while they teach.” I think this point is very important. Could you share with our readers how this happened with your two participants and why you feel this point is so important?
The concept of identities as pedagogical resources (see Simon, 1995; Morgan, 2004; Motha, et al., 2012) enables me to explore more deeply the interactions between NNESTs’ identities and their teaching practice. In my study, both of my TESOL –graduated participants expressed that at some point during their TESOL programs, they started to undergo transformation when their non-nativeness changed. The non-nativeness was transformed from a deficit to an asset, and then further became a resource that they can draw on while they teach. In other words, the participants have negotiated and transformed their non-nativeness and turned it into a pedagogical resource.
Both participant A and B demonstrated this strategy–identity as pedagogical resources — clearly in class. I conducted classroom observations in participant A’s class which included 5 international students from China, Japan, Korea, and Thailand and 3 Caucasian students born in the United States. I noticed that participant A mentioned Korean culture or language whenever she felt she needed this in order to support her ideas. Even in the first class, participant A started the class by introducing herself and telling a story about her name and then related her name to Korean culture. Interestingly enough, after participant A’s self-introduction, as the students took turns introducing themselves, without participant A explicitly asking the students to tell about their own names and cultures, all students shared the stories about their names and cultures. In addition, every time as I observed the class, participant A always encouraged the students to bring up their own cultures and languages as examples to the class.
Participant B also mentioned that now in the first class of each term he always starts the class by telling a story about his name and sharing his experience about how he started to learn English when he was 18 years old in Ukraine and later in the US. He mentioned he always tells his students, “Listen, here I am teaching English in the U.S. It is a myth that you cannot reach native-like fluency in English even though you start English as an adult. Now I am showing you how to get better in English.” In addition, the following statement from participant B demonstrates strongly how his identity as an English language learner helps him in terms of pedagogy. He stated:
My own philosophy is, you know, “If I can do it, you [the students] can do it.”…and because I have to learn this [English] I could kind of go back and imagine if it could work for me if I was learning English. And maybe how would that change? Had I known about this? Had I tried this? Yes, absolutely. Comparing with other teachers, their philosophy their approach and my philosophy my approach, I see whatever I do as a teacher is really connected a lot to the fact that I am an English learner as well.
We see how participants A and B performed agency and turned their identities into their assets and resources in teaching. These examples also illustrate how the participants’ identities influence their teaching.
7. Another point you make in your paper which I would like you to be able to write about in this interview is about the importance of “hiring more NNESTs in TESOL programs for teaching positions and therefore increasing their visibility in the field of TESOL and in the education of ESL teachers”. Since 40% of MA TESOL in the United States are international students, your statement makes a lot of sense. How does this go beyond the importance of NNESTs as ESL teachers and in TESOL programs because they are role models? How does this point come out of your research on the identity development of MA TESOL students? Do you think it should be the goal of our NNEST IG in TESOL to advocate actively for the hiring of more NNEST professors in MA TESOL programs in the United States?
The idea of hiring more NNESTs for teaching positions in TESOL programs and therefore increasing their visibility in the field of TESOL and in the education of ESL teachers came up in my study (Liao, 2012). Both participants mentioned that there were NNESTs as faculty members in their TESOL programs and those NNESTs served as role models for the participants. For instance, participant A indicated that she and her mentor, who is also a NNEST from China, have formed a lifelong mentor-mentee relationship. As participant A stated in the interview, “He himself is a non-native English speaker teaching us in the program and this was very inspiring to me… ‘Oh, even though you are not a native English speaker, you can teach us in the U.S. This is great.’” In addition, participant A also mentioned that although her mentor has a heavy Chinese accent, he is very articulate. She regards him as a scholar, his academic English being at the top level. It is interesting to note that participant A also mentioned her Korean accent during the interviews and how she has negotiated between her accent and English. Furthermore, participant A also described how her mentor tried to bring students’ different cultures and different languages to the class discussion. In my classroom observations I saw that participant A demonstrated this teaching approach as well.
Likewise, participant B also mentioned there was a NNEST from Japan in his TESOL program who was a faculty member and she, according to participant B, was probably the first person changing his impression that NNESTs cannot teach people how to teach English in the U.S. For my participants, seeing other NNESTs in the TESOL field as role models mediates their formation of agency. In other words, those role models empower my participants to change his/her perception of NNEST identity. They then demonstrate agency to use their own NNEST identity as an asset or a resource in teaching.
Of course, one cannot deny there are many dedicated NESTs in the field of English language teaching; however, in many institutions, both in ESL and EFL contexts, “nativeness” serves as a foremost gatekeeper in the hiring process, and teacher professionalism takes a back seat.
Furthermore, Villegas and Irvine’s study (2010) emphasize the importance and advantages of having NNESTs in academic settings. Drawing on multiple studies as evidence, Villegas and Irvine (2010) demonstrate that students of color acquire academic benefits “when taught by a same-race teacher or when exposed to a teaching force that is racially or ethnically representative of the student population” (p. 180).The reasons for this phenomenon can be that teachers of color use culturally relevant teaching and confront issues of racism through teaching (Villegas and Irvine, 2010). Additionally, NNESTs serve as role models for their English language learners.
I think the idea of having our NNEST IG in TESOL advocate actively for the hiring of more NNEST professors in MA TESOL programs in the United States is wonderful. For many students in MA TESOL programs, whether native English speakers or non-native English speakers, domestic or international, their TESOL program is the site where they as student teachers shape or reshape their identities as English language teachers. In addition, many international students might go back to their own counties to teach or become teacher educators after they graduate, so seeing other NNESTs teaching in MA TESOL programs in the US definitely provides a new perspective for these MA TESOL graduates.
8. You are now working on your Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Washington. Would you like to give us a preview or what you are writing about and what you predict your findings might be?
I have not finalized my dissertation topic yet; however, I am passionate about conducting my dissertation research regarding NNESTs in Taiwan. I am very interested in understanding the complex process of identity negotiation of TESOL-graduated NNESTs in Taiwan. In addition, I hope to understand better how their identities as NNESTs influence their teaching practice and how their teaching practice influences their identities as NNESTs.
9. You have done graduate study at two universities in the United States, one on the east coast and one on the west coast of the United States. In terms of being an international student living abroad, how easy … or difficult … has it been to adapt to these two quite different environments? Did you decide to move to Washington just for academic reasons or did the location play some part in your decision? What advice would you give other prospective international students who want to pursue graduate study in MA TESOL or applied linguistics programs in the United States?
I always think I am very fortunate to have the opportunities to explore two major cities of the US—Philadelphia and Seattle. I love the historical aspects of Philly and I love visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA). I remember sometimes I would run along the Schuylskill River just to see the magnificent building of the PMA or just wonder around. I also enjoyed exploring the nice and interesting combination of both ancient and modern buildings while I was in Philly. Seattle is very different. It is very green and I enjoy its beautiful scenery very much. Sometimes if the weather is nice and not raining (it does happen!), the lake view is just stunning. Seattle is also a very walkable and pedestrian-friendly city.
Choosing to pursue my PhD at UW-Seattle was mainly for academic reasons for sure and interesting enough, but perhaps partially for its location as well because it is closer to Taiwan! The 12-hour flight between Seattle and Taiwan is long but relatively bearable.
As an international student, I don’t think there was a difficult transition when I shifted my study environment from the east coast to the west coast. Of course there were things that I needed to adjust to—culture-wise and food-wise, but I realized that even my friends who grew up in California find Seattle is special and they also need to learn more about Northwestern culture.
A piece of advice that I would like to offer perspective international students who want to pursue graduate study in MA TESOL or applied linguistics programs in the United States is to make some local connections, with people both inside and outside school contexts. As mentioned previously, my teaching experience at the non-profit organization in downtown Philly was very valuable. During my study in TESOL, I also tutored Chinese to two American home-schooled children and the relationships with the children and their families are unforgettable. The teaching experience has inspired me to examine my own identities as an English language teacher, an English language learner, and a native Chinese speaker.
Currently at UW, I am a graduate student assistant in the Pipeline Project, a program that helps students connect their academic experience to their real-world experiences by recruiting and training students to be tutors or volunteers in K-12 Seattle public schools or community organizations. For this job I also have the opportunity to teach an undergraduate level seminar focusing on educational issues, such as achievement gap or teaching ELLs, in K-12 schools. This working experience, although challenging but very interesting and rewarding, not only provides me opportunities to make some local connections with my colleagues and other teaching professionals from UW and outside campus, but also allows me to explore my own identities as a teacher as well as a learner within this institution of higher learning.
Again, thank you, Terry, and other NNEST blog editors for giving me the opportunity to describe my research and express my ideas via this platform. The NNEST blog supports and encourages me in many ways, both personally and professionally.
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