The Right Place at the Right Time

Teaching abroad helped Gillian Grant develop in ways that would never have been possible in her home country, but she knew when it was time to go home. See Pat Colabucci’s Out of the Box article, "My Journey from the World of EFL to the World of ESL," Essential Teacher, June 2007.

In eleven years of living and working abroad, I learned a lot. Four years working for the U.S. Peace Corps in Haiti and the Central African Republic changed the way I viewed the world and myself. I left the United States a na ve idealist from a materialistic suburb in Dallas, Texas. After a time I faced the uncomfortable realization that I depended on external validation and approval and on others to interpret events around me.

Faced with a lot of time alone, far from English speakers for weeks at a time, I was quiet enough to hear my own voice and mind, and some deeper part of me emerged. I went to Africa to "help others," but, in a remote area of one of the poorest countries in the world, I benefited also, learning much from my neighbors about giving, celebrating, and living in the here and now. I conducted a range of wonderful-sounding (and useful) projects to improve the lives of my neighbors, but the biggest and most lasting changes were within myself.

From Fear to Confidence

After earning a master’s degree while teaching ESL, I taught English for three years in Turkey and four in Burma. I loved my jobs, especially in Burma, where my students were hardworking, autonomous, respectful, and trusting. I joyfully prepared lessons, which the students appreciatively devoured.

I went to many English language teaching conferences and conducted more than a dozen teacher training workshops. I went from fear to confidence in presenting to a room full of peers. I don’t think I could have developed so effectively in the United States as a junior teacher with a master’s degree. Working as a member of a multicultural staff, alongside teachers from England, Ireland, Australia, Germany, the Philippines, Turkey, and Burma, was an enlightening experience.

A Teaching Term in Burma

I wrote the following reflection at the end of a teaching term, after having spent three years teaching in Burma, a military dictatorship where education is limited and all local media, including the Internet, are highly censored.

"To the Students, Class Is So Very Important"

Sometimes the end of the term is really high energy, with a lot of emotion and deeper feelings stirred up. To the students, class is so very important—for some, their experience at the American Center in Rangoon is almost life transforming. Our elective classes, such as debate, literature circles and current events, require them to think and participate in ways they have never done before. Everything about the American Center is new to them, from our large library to the small, communicative classes and their challenging assignments. Many students travel great distances to attend classes, which can become the focus of their lives.

Coping with Admiration

It can be hard to absorb the admiration shown by students. Sincere and touching, they bear testimony to how their whole way of thinking and viewing the world has been changed since coming the American Center and how the classes and the library have been so eye opening. They talk about how no one ever really challenged them to think or pushed them to have opinions and then defend them. They talk about how they’d never given a presentation before and how they’d never participated in group discussions like we did. They talk about how they’d never had a dynamic teacher and done creative activities, that learning before was completely based on memorization. They talk about how they’ve never made friends in a situation like this and how they will miss class so much. Sometimes I get letters from a student professing (totally innocent) love.

One class knelt with palms together as they do before respected elders or images of the Buddha. In a tradition observed with Burmese teachers, they recited an acknowledgment of respect for me as they bowed. I recited the blessing I’d learned in Burmese. I was honored.

"A Window on Students’ Minds"

Yesterday I scanned my student-written current events evaluations and I was impressed with the number of students who professed a complete rethinking of history and world events. Some wrote that previously they were not at all interested in history or world events and not interested in reading news articles, but that they have grown to enjoy this discovery and see it as important. Looking at my current events class for the last time, I was a bit sad as I felt they had only recently gotten to the level of critical thinking that was my goal. I wished the term was longer. But I am grateful for the opportunity I have had here and the places I have gone with my students.

Similar emotions when I faced my literature circles class yesterday for the last time. Over half of the students were new to the American Center. Most of them had never read any book in English and in my class they read and analyzed novels. They wrote structured responses in their journal before every class about their reading and were pushed to think and respond critically. Reading and responding to these journals was a constant task in my life. It served as a direct window on each of my students’ minds, and it was so very enjoyable to nurture progress and offer support to them on their journey.

It sometimes shocks me to realize the power we teachers have to influence these students. They are so very receptive to the messages we send, whether they be intentional or unintentional messages. I am thankful for the opportunity to use my skills to help others.

Well Landed

After more than a decade of working abroad, I decided it was time to use my skills in my own country. I relish my years abroad and feel that I was growing as I explored new cultures, languages, and religions.

Coming home was easy; I experienced little reverse culture shock. It was easy to adjust to sudden good Internet connections, large inviting health food grocery stores, a cell phone’s convenience, or the availability of a great cup of coffee on every corner. There was no adjustment to everyone speaking my language or being closer to my height. After nearly six months, I have landed well.

Gillian Grant (Gillian@unt.edu) teaches in the Intensive English Language Institute at the University of North Texas, in the United States.