1. Could you tell us about your educational and professional background and what led you to become an educator?
My journey to becoming an educator started with my opportunity to learn English in middle school in Vietnam when I was 11 years old. My family lived in the countryside, where the school system was not as good as the one in the city. My parents decided to send me to live with my aunt in the city so I could have a better education. I took entrance exams at the province’s gifted school and got accepted to “specialize” in English. In Vietnam, students can specialize in a subject as early as in middle school. We tackled English as we would any other subject, such as Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, and Vietnamese Literature (the four most popular “majors” in middle schools and high schools in Vietnam). That was how I approached English. Only once in a while I had opportunity to participate in some activities in English, such as singing songs or doing a play. I was a good learner of the subject with the motivation to become the top student in the class and win a prize in the national contest for the English subject. I did not have any idea of how I would use the language, but I was in love with the subject. I read Time magazine, listened to BBC, and did practice exercises so that I could have top grades. Only when I started my bachelor degree in English teaching in the College of Foreign Languages at Vietnam National University did I have more opportunities to use English in classroom discussions and presentations. I only had encounters with native English speakers a few times during my whole language learning experience in Vietnam.
The degree led me to a teaching job in the university. My desire to be able to study in an English speaking country led me to the MATESL program at Penn State, where I also had an opportunity to work as a graduate assistant and teach one ESL course a semester. Going back to Vietnam after I finished the MA program, I enjoyed the privilege of being US-educated in several ways. I had opportunities to share what I had learned with my colleagues. I was involved in teaching students who were enrolled in a special program for talented students. My private classes attracted students. I could earn my living by doing multiple jobs. For teachers in Vietnam, it is common to have multiple jobs to earn a living. All the education and experience then led me to my current job—teaching and managing an English Language Program in a university in Pittsburgh. My educational journey and professional journey has largely been learning and teaching EFL and ESL. My strong desire to learn prompted me to enroll in an online EdD program while working full-time. To me, the exciting and scary part of being an educator is I never feel I know enough and I always have the desire to learn and improve my teaching. Somehow, my learner identity is always just as strong as my professional identity.
2. Could you tell us about your current position and what it involves?
I’m currently working as English Language Program coordinator at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My job involves teaching ESL courses, and managing a program with 5 levels of instruction. I wear different hats in the program: a teacher, a student advisor, a personnel manager, a curriculum developer, a program reviewer, and so on. It is a job that has extended my experience in U.S. higher education to the extent that I couldn’t have imagined before.
3. As an NNEST working in the US, what are some of the challenges you have experienced and what have been some of your successes?
My success was to have teaching jobs in the U.S., especially a full-time ESL job. I felt the managers that hired me were very open-minded and didn’t turn me away because of my accent. I got hired because of the education and experience that I earned and the promise of what I could offer to the institutions. I feel lucky in that respect. However, I have heard that my NNES identity was brought in discussions of several ESL-related projects. Through secondary sources, I have heard comments on the non-academic status of ESL in the university. I have been reminded that that since I’m Asian I have an indirect communication style, which may make me unsuitable for teaching certain topics in the classroom. Another sad reality of ESL teaching is that it has been so difficult for qualified ESL teachers to find full-time positions these days. Many end up having to teach as part-time teachers in several institutions. In fact, I share the feeling of insecurity and uncertainty with the part-time teachers in my program and other part-time teachers that I’ve come into contact with in the area.
My other successes include receiving long thank-you notes that students wrote before leaving the program and hearing compliments from colleagues across the hall from my office about how I can always be patient, friendly, and firm with students who come in with a wide variety of requests and issues. Other successes include being professionally connected through my involvement in a TESOL local affiliation, having opportunities to attend and present at conferences, gaining knowledge from professors and classmates from all over the world by enrolling in an EdD program in TESOL online, getting recognized by my supervisor for doing my job well because I have both the training and experience, and sustaining hope for better working conditions for myself and other teachers. After all, successes are largely how one feels about one’s accomplishments and goals.
4. Regarding the role of NNESTs in TESOL, what are some of the challenges you see that the field must move beyond?
The field must move beyond the NES/ NNES dichotomy so that NNESTs have options to claim a multilingual, plurilingual, or WE speaker identity (Pavlenko, 2003). We also need to address World Englishes issues (Jenkins, 2006) regarding language standards, language assessment, and teaching. To echo Jenkins, researchers, curriculum developers and teachers need to be aware of the sociolinguistic realities of students coming from different parts of the world, the varieties they speak, ELF features that may be beneficial for most learners in most situations in their future, and accommodation skills students need in order to interact effectively with speakers of different varieties.
5. In your personal and professional journey as a NNEST, have you had mentors who have played a significant role in your professional development as a confident professional?
My advisor, Dr. Paula Golombek, has always encouraged me, supported me, and inspired me since the time I started my MA at Penn State until now. Dr. Joan Kelly Hall gave me teaching opportunities at Penn State even when there were not enough courses over the summer for all graduate assistants who would like to teach. She once sat down with me and my co-instructor and split the work equally because, as I remember, what she said was I was “just as good.” I also feel thankful to my previous supervisor, Heather McNaught, who hired me as an adjunct and later on recommended me to my current position and got me involved in Three Rivers TESOL. My current supervisor has always been supportive in my professional development and has helped a great deal to locate more resources for the program. I realize I have always been struggling with the fear of not being “good enough” in the classroom, but I think fear gives me motivation and there are people who cheer me on and have given me great support and encouragement.
6. When/How did you first become aware of NNEST-related issues? Do you believe that this topic should be included in MA TESL programs, both in the U.S. and abroad?
I’ve become more aware of NNEST-related issues by reading literature discussing World Englishes, ELF, EIL, teacher identity, and other related topics. I’ve become more aware of the issues since I started teaching in the U.S. after completing my MA. People sometimes express bewilderment when I tell them about my position. I hear comments about my linguistic and cultural identity. I see a graduate program in the area that indicates that they normally only offer ESL teaching assistantships to “students who are native speakers of a standard variety of English.” I start to wonder what constraints there might be on my career advancement because of my NNEST status. I think NNEST-related topics should be included in MA TESL programs in order to provide teacher candidates with opportunities to problematize the NES/NNES dichotomy, better understand the dominant ideologies in particular contexts, explore their linguistic identity options—including NNESTs, bilinguals, multilinguals, and WE speakers—and claim their identity as qualified professionals either in the U.S. or abroad (Park, 2012).
7. To what extent do you believe NNESTs should value or focus on attaining native or native-like competence? To what extent have you made this a personal goal, if at all?
I don’t think I have made this my personal goal at all, although everyday activities I engage in often have the secondary purpose of helping me to improve my knowledge and use of the language. Watching TV shows, reading newspapers, and listening to the radio, for example, help me to gain new expressions, idioms, and vocabulary. In order to be a teacher, one needs high proficiency in the target language, but it doesn’t have to be native or native-like competence. After all, English learners and teachers from different countries including multilingual countries like Singapore and Malaysia, to name a few, may have very different linguistic needs.
8. What strategies have you employed to promote your strengths as an NNEST? Do you have some practical suggestions for other NNESTs who may feel as though their ‘difference’ is often perceived as a liability rather than an asset?
I was advised to “address the elephant in the room” when teaching a new class. I have followed that advice by introducing my educational and professional background to students. In interactions, whenever somebody comments on my accent or another NNEST’s accent, I often point out that everybody has an accent to a certain extent. We sometimes discuss the issue of standard language in the classroom. I’m interested in learning about other strategies.
9. What do you know about the current status of NNESTs working as TESOL professionals in Vietnam? Do you try to keep in touch with the state of EFL teaching there?
I hope I will be able to keep in touch with EFL teaching in Vietnam in the future because I haven’t been able to do so since I moved back to the U.S. in 2010. Hopefully, my trip to Vietnam this November will help me to reconnect with EFL colleagues in Vietnam. As far as I know in the cities and in private language schools, more and more NESTs are hired alongside NNESTs. They are often assigned to teach communication (listening and speaking) classes. They are often compensated higher than NNESTs. To a certain extent, their “nativeness” is commodified to attract parents and learners and the professional qualifications might also be neglected.
10. What do you hope for the future of the NNEST movement?
I hope that language teachers all over the world have opportunities for good language education that allows them to attain a high level of language proficiency as well as opportunities for professional development, so that we have knowledge and strategies to improve the working conditions for both NESTs and NNESTs.
Jenkins, J. (2006). Current perspectives on teaching World Englishes and English as a lingua franca. TESOL Quarterly, 40(1), 157-181.
Park, G. (2012). ‘I am never afraid of being recognized as an NNES’: One teacher’s journey in claiming and embracing her nonnative speaker identity. TESOL Quarterly, 46(1), 127-151.
Pavlenko, A. (2003). “I never knew I was a bilingual”: Reimagining teacher identities in TESOL. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 2, 251-268.