Professional Development for TESOL Graduate Students

by Eric Kendrick

Professional development is an important component of success for graduate students choosing TESOL as their profession. When I began the Master's program in TESOL at Georgia State University, the graduate faculty emphasized the importance of professional development. Since then, a professional development component has actually been incorporated into the graduation requirements. In addition to academic preparation, the faculty wanted to ensure that students were equipped to become competent professionals who could navigate a competitive job market. The ideas in this article will help both graduate faculty and graduate students strengthen the professional development component of their programs.

Establish a Graduate Student Association

If one does not already exist, faculty and students should establish a Graduate Student Association (GSA). The GSA should be student-led, and should provide opportunities for students to demonstrate and develop their leadership and professional skills. One way to make this happen is to structure the GSA to consist of committees that encourage students to take responsible leadership roles and to practice their skills. At Georgia State our GSA had the following committees:

  • Professional Development
  • Communication
  • Social/Cultural
  • Technology

Sponsoring workshops on relevant professional issues is one of the most important activities of a GSA. Some of the workshops we conducted at Georgia State dealt with topics like resume building and writing, the job search (what employers are looking for, overseas issues), conference presentations (selecting a topic, writing a proposal, general tips), and technology issues.

Create a Resource Center

Establishing a professional resource center, which provides important information to help graduate students stay abreast of professional issues, is another good idea. The following are just some of the things that can be maintained there:

  • TESOL information (TESOL and affiliate membership application, TESOL Matters , information and newsletters for interest sections and caucuses, affiliate newsletters)
  • job search information (TESOL Placement E-Bulletin , other relevant job search sources)
  • resume file: a collection of resumes and cover letters for students to view as examples, with attention to both content (how to build a strong resume) and structure (how to write an effective resume)
  • conference proposal file (gives graduate students an idea of conference topics and how to write a proposal)
  • list of professional development opportunities
  • information from other relevant professional associations (e.g., NAFSA, AAAL)
Collaborate With Faculty

Students should collaborate with faculty as much as possible on departmental activities. Professors who know the students and have observed their performance will find it much easier to give them strong reference letters. Because service is an important aspect of the education profession, students can also look for opportunities within the university community to build their credentials through activities such as serving as an advisor to one of the international student organizations, or assisting with international student orientation. Service can extend to the local community, especially through schools and non-profit organizations. This is a great way for graduate students with minimal teaching experience to gain it, and for those with teaching experience to further implement what they are learning in their graduate studies.

Get Involved in a Professional Association

Graduate students also should become involved in professional associations, such as TESOL and its local affiliates. Local affiliates are run by busy professionals on a voluntary basis, and the involvement of enthusiastic graduate students can make a big difference, especially in planning for conferences. They can also be helpful in establishing and maintaining Web sites and electronic discussion lists, for example. Graduate students also can get involved in TESOL; the interest sections and caucuses are a good place to start. The best advice I can give here is not to be apprehensive. If you want to participate at this level, you should simply express an interest to the appropriate person. In most cases you will find your involvement more than welcome.

Graduate students who have specific career goals or specific areas of interest within the TESOL field can also consider involvement with other professional associations. For example, if you plan to be a language program administrator or focus on student services, you can join NAFSA: Association of International Educators or a local NAFSA affiliate. If your interest is more in the area of theory, research, and policy, you could join the American Association for Applied Linguistics. If your interest is specifically in one of the skill areas, such as writing, reading, or oral communication, or in technology, you could join an organization that focuses on that area. You can also join organizations that focus on the specific level you are working with (higher education, adult education, public schools) or the population you are working with, such as refugees, international students, or special-needs students.

Attend and Present at Conferences

In addition to joining and serving in professional associations, graduate students should be attending and even presenting at conferences. Attending conferences provides access to relevant information and resources, as well as opportunities for networking. In almost any field, networking is very important for a professional's career. It may be for the purpose of collaborating on a particular project with someone who has similar professional interests. Or, it may be for the purpose of becoming acquainted with professionals in your area, so that when jobs open up, they will already know your name. What we typically say in the United States with reference to job prospects is true in this case: "It's not what you know, but who you know."

Presenting at conferences is also important, and graduate students should never think they have nothing relevant to share. Even those with minimal teaching experience are learning things in their graduate studies that can benefit others. Those who are inhibited by the idea of presenting alone should collaborate with others, and those with minimal teaching experience can start with local conferences. These local conferences typically have many adult-education teachers, many of whom are volunteers with little or no formal training. They come to conferences to learn things that will help them in the classroom -- often the very things that graduate students are learning in their studies. Therefore, presenting at conferences helps to establish a graduate student as a committed professional who can disseminate relevant information to others.

Professional development through service and involvement at the departmental, university, community, and professional association level is important because it develops and demonstrates experience, commitment, and balance. It is important for graduate students always to document their professional development activities, and to make sure they are communicating regularly with their advisors or other appropriate persons regarding these issues. Commitment to professional development will make a TESOL graduate program more attractive to potential students, and make graduate students more marketable to potential employers. It will also help them carve a niche for themselves in their chosen profession.

Eric Kendrick is the Coordinator of ESL and Foreign Languages at Georgia Perimeter College, Lawrenceville Campus, in Metro Atlanta. He received an MA in Applied Linguistics from Georgia State University. He is the former President of Georgia TESOL and former Chair of TESOL's Intercultural Communication Interest Section. His primary interest are service learning, sociolinguistics, and oral communication. He has taught in Vitenam twice, and traveled extensively throughout Asia.

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