Lety Banks has over two decades of teaching experience in domestic and international settings. She has conducted teacher training in Mexico, Africa, China, Brazil, Chile, and the United States and currently teaches at the American Language and Culture Institute at California State University San Marcos, where she also served as the Assistant Director for over three years. In 2011, she served as an English Language Fellow in Chile and is currently an English Language Specialist, both for the US Department of State.
She is passionate about teacher education, preparation, and development and is committed to improving the teaching experience of new and seasoned teachers. Lety is currently a doctoral student at UCSD and is the recipient of the Chrispeels Doctoral Fellowship in Educational Leadership—a fellowship given to highly qualified doctoral students who are engaged in leadership actions to promote social justice and equity. | April Interviewer: Terry Doyle
1) Thank you for taking time from your busy schedule and life to answer my interview questions. First, could you share with our readers a description of your experiences as a student and also of your professional background as an English teacher, teacher trainer, and program administrator? What factors led to your decision to become an English teacher and teacher trainer?
My journey as a teacher started in the Normal School System in Mexico—a system dedicated to training elementary and secondary teachers. I had an exceptional four-year program that got me into the classroom from my very first semester thus exposing me early on to the realities of teaching. After four years, I graduated as an Elementary School teacher and taught in a Mayan village, a city school for underprivileged students, and also in a suburban, upper-middle class private school, both in Mexico.
After three years of teaching, I moved to the United States to learn English and to study for my B.A. in Spanish Translation/Interpretation and my M.A. in TESOL. I had joined the ranks of Non-Native English Language Educators without knowing the impact that would have on my career. At that time I decided to become an English teacher because I saw the curriculum and pedagogical gaps in K-12 ESL programs in California. I saw firsthand how difficult it was for K-12 teachers to work with students from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and I wanted to make a difference. My idealistic views, however, were soon confronted with the reality of being a non-native English speaker in my first job in an Intensive English Program at the university level. My students expected a white, native English-speaking teacher, and could not overcome the reality of having me instead. And deep down, I could not blame them. I had had just that: 10 white native English-speaking American teachers myself and knew full well the value of that experience. Yet, that was a painful semester, and I am still haunted by some of the comments in the students’ final evaluations. That experience taught me how much I would need to work at establishing credibility and how much more I would need to learn in order to be effective in the ESL classroom. From then on, my view of professional growth took another meaning entirely, and I still attend as many professional development opportunities as possible.
My life in English started at the age of 21 years when I moved to the United States to learn English. It was not an easy task. By then, I was beyond shame and desperation, and the only thing that scared me was fossilization. I didn’t know the term or the concept then, but I could feel it in my brain and on my tongue every second, minute, hour, day, week, and month of study. 10 hours of English classes a day with only 30 minutes of native language relief was exhausting to say the least, but since I needed to learn fast, exhaustion gave way to determination and effort. There were days when I was completely mute and let my ears do all the work; there were days when I hated VOWELS and just ignored them, and there were days when I just pretended fluency of mind and tongue. I was determined to sound as smart in English as I sounded in Spanish! And who could contradict that?
My English immersion program consisted of 20 students with 10 teachers at our disposal. I did not own nor did I care to own a bilingual dictionary, so tolerating vagueness became part of the learning process. This immersion experience was also a personal spiritual journey so I felt supported and encouraged. The learning environment was such that I thrived. I learned to speak, listen, and read English to a degree. Writing came later, much, much later. And the TOEFL test was just an introduction to the pain that I would go through to learn the craft.
During my first two years as an undergraduate, I took a lot of upper division classes in my major in addition to a small dose of General Education courses. Freshman English was a shock to my system, a wake up call to my senses, and a humbling cultural reminder that I was an international student—my high school background had immense literature gaps, and that reality was hard to escape. I still have my letter of acceptance to the university in which the University President congratulated me, welcomed me to the campus, and encouraged me by giving me a few titles to read to get me ready for my freshman year. He knew what was best for me, and I didn’t take the hint soon enough. With the support of a fabulous multicultural infrastructure at the university, I graduated in four years with a 3.7 GPA. I cry every time I remember that adventure!
I have been teaching in the Intensive Academic English program at the American Language and Culture Institute (ALCI) at California State University San Marcos (CSUSM) since 2000. In 2007, I became the Assistant Director of the ALCI, and making the transition from teacher to administrator was another reality check. Learning to navigate the administrative culture requires self-awareness, intention, resilience, diplomacy, and clever alertness. Nobody trains you for all the details of an administrative position, and I quickly discovered that establishing credibility was crucial once again.
2) How did you get into teacher training?
My involvement with teacher training at ALCI started in 2005 because there we trained Chinese teachers every summer. Listening to their stories and personal experiences in the profession peaked my desire to deliver more effective training sessions that could be applicable and implementable in their context. I started studying different models of EFL training, and in 2008, the ALCI had the opportunity to deliver a semester-long teacher training program for pre-service English teachers from Chile. A cohort of 10-15 students would come to the US, sponsored by the government, to supplement their undergraduate training. As the Assistant Director, I led a dedicated group of trainers to put together a strong curriculum that supported their Chilean courses, and we were successful. The program hosted three different cohorts, and what I gained from that experience led me to focus my career on training EFL teachers. As a result, in 2011, I left my position as Assistant Director and accepted an English Language Fellowship for the US Department of State in Santiago, Chile. Working with Chilean students in the United States was very helpful in working with Chileans pre- and in-service English teachers in their country.
My fellowship in Chile is a highlight of my professional life. Seeing the realities of teacher training programs infused me with greater desire to work in the trenches of education to implement change. But change takes leadership; therefore, I returned to the United States determined to work on a doctorate in Educational Leadership.
3) What are your main responsibilities in your current position at the American Language & Culture Institute at California State University San Marcos? What aspects of this job do you enjoy the most? What aspects of this position do you find particularly challenging?
My current work at the ALCI involves teaching in the Intensive Academic Program (IAP) where I enjoy learning with and from my students. I love the thrill of the first class, the impact of the first week, the intensity of the first month, and how students evolve and progress throughout the semester. I love trying new things, new strategies, and allowing students freedom to learn in a safe classroom environment. For me, it is absolutely crucial to establish a relationship of trust with and among all my students so they experience learning without fear.
By their very nature, however, IAPs are transient programs for students. Students are on a quest: pass the TOEFL/IELTS and get to the University as soon as possible. This fact alone causes anxiety and unproductive behaviors to surface. Coupled with cultural behaviors and assumptions, such unproductive behaviors can lead to student-teacher tension, or worse yet, class-teacher tension. Neither is appropriate, and efforts to cultivate a culture of success may go unnoticed. This is one of the challenges I could do without, any day!
4) You are now a student in a doctoral program? What made you decide to study for a doctorate? What in particular do you plan to do research on? Is this research currently ongoing?
As I said previously, my teacher training experiences in Chile pointed me decidedly toward the doctorate. What I have observed in almost 30 years of teaching in third and first world countries, in grade school to high school to university in Mexico, Chile, and the United States is a common overarching problem that stymies the education of English Language Learners (ELLs). The root of this problem is deficient, poor, or absent pedagogy. This needs to change, and change needs leadership. In Chile, for example, English teacher preparation programs expect students to master English and teaching English pedagogy in four years with deficient language and pedagogy instruction in their own curricula. In Mexico, there are English teachers who have a good command of the language but have no EFL training at all.
We all know that, among other things, good teaching has to have these three things: good curriculum, good materials, and good teachers. We also know that out of these three things, teachers are the piece we have more control over; therefore, we have to look at how we prepare English teachers in international settings, and how we train in-service EFL teachers to address deficiencies in language and pedagogy. I believe this can be done.
With this in mind, I am ‘curious’ about the following research topics: the effectiveness of current curricula for pre-service EFL teachers, the value of short-term EFL teacher training programs, and the effectiveness of cumulative teacher training programs for in-service EFL teachers. Right now, I am setting up an ambitious teacher-training program in Mexico, and I hope I can report positive results on this program at TESOL next year.
5) The field of education is a very rewarding profession. What memorable experiences do you have as a teacher and teacher trainer during your career?
I’ve been teaching for almost 30 years. My book of memories is full, and there are wet pages throughout. Let me highlight a couple of experiences that have had a profound effect on my professional and personal life.
In Mali, Africa, some teachers had to walk miles to reach the training center after work and were happy to do so. The training went late into the evening but the teachers stayed anyway. They are models of dedication, and my heart is too small to express the gratitude I feel for them till this day.
Another poignant memory is my work in China. In China, teachers have long days and 45+ students per class, and those teachers do not miss a beat. Many of them have never been outside of China, yet their English is beautiful, and they crave to learn more.
That is the best part of my job as a teacher trainer. I love to see how teaching unites us across the many miles and many cultures we represent. We have all embarked on a great cause, and we all deserve a big round of applause for that!
6) In the past two years you were in Chile on an English Language Fellowship for the State Department. You have also worked as a teacher trainer in Brazil, Mexico, China, and Africa. What aspects of these experiences did you enjoy the most? What challenges did you encounter?
One of the most frequent challenges I encounter is my perpetual ‘otherness.” Not meeting the ‘native profile’ and being treated as if I’m not qualified. Being a NNEST, but being treated as an English teacher, requires more than a TESOL degree. It requires CHANGE! I’ll leave it at that for now.
7) Many of our readers are aspiring non-native English teachers hoping to find jobs teaching English in the United States, in their home countries, or in another country. What challenges have you had in your career, and what advice would you give young aspiring non-native English teachers based on your experiences?
There is no magic wand on this one: LEARN, PREPARE, DELIVER. We are competing with the world. English speaking countries can no longer meet the demand for native English teachers throughout the world; we have to do be part of the equation. We need to be the English teachers the world needs, schools demand, and students deserve. LEARN, PREPARE, DELIVER, & LEAD CHANGE.
My six-hour PCI at TESOL 2014 covered this question in detail. If you would like to receive a handout, please send me an e-mail.
8 ) What factors and experiences led you to become interested in non-native teacher issues? What led you to become active in non-native teacher advocacy and to volunteer to be the next coordinator of CATESOL’s NNLEI (non-native language educators’ issues)
First, I’m one of them. I know what is like to be in the ‘perpetual otherness box.” It’s a reality we can’t escape; our very essence forbids it. But this does not mean we cannot have an impact on the ESL/EFL field. We can. Many have done so before us, many are doing right now, and many more will join the efforts in the future. We need to be a clear voice for learning English; we need to be good models for that voice to count, and our voices are needed now. That is why I joined the NNLEI Interest group. Join us!
9) As CATESOL’s NNLEI coordinator next year, what particular issues do you think you will focus on? What do you hope to accomplish in this position?
Right now, I want to be a champion for the main issue on the table: equal job opportunities for NNESTs. Our current coordinator, Chigusa Katoku, is furthering those efforts, so I’m on board with her.
10) Let me move from talking about your professional work to something more personal. How have you managed to balance your family responsibilities with those as a hard working teacher, teacher trainer, and now a doctoral student, too?
I am still learning the balancing act. This semester, I decided to focus on my doctorate and on the teacher-training project only. I am not settled into the doctoral program yet so I need to find the routine that works best for me. I need to learn how to manage the homework load, the family-life load, the housework load, the health load, and the sanity load. I will be happy to report on my progress in six months.
Luckily, I have a wonderful support system at home: a spouse who shares family responsibilities, two cats that keep me as a part-time slave, and yoga to keep me aware and focused. Bike rides, walks on the beach, a little bit of Jane Austen, professional discussions with colleagues, time out with friends, and a comfortable corner to do my work help too.
Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences and ideas with me and our readers.