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TESOL International Association Mourns the Loss of Founding Member Dr. James E. Alatis

by User Not Found | 03/02/2015
Dr. Alatis passed away on 28 February at his home in Arlington, Virginia.
It is with great sadness that TESOL International Association announces the passing of Dr. James E. “Jim” Alatis, a founding member of TESOL and its first executive director. He served from the establishment of the association in 1966 through 1987, at which time he became executive director emeritus. Through his service to the association and to the field, Dr. Alatis embodied the vision and the collegiality that gave rise to the TESOL association. His efforts have helped provide educators at all levels with a home where their efforts are recognized and championed worldwide.

In January 1966, Dr. Alatis was a member of the ad hoc committee that met in Chicago to form an association that recognized the professional status of teachers of English as a second or foreign language. In an interview for ESL Magazine, Dr. Alatis pointed out that “TESOL’s initial goals were to satisfy the need for a professional organization that would be permanently devoted to the problems of teaching English to speakers of other languages by establishing a professional journal and providing a register of specialists that would be helpful to government agencies, universities, and foundations.”

Later that year, Harold B. Allen, TESOL’s first president, invited him to become the association’s executive secretary. Dr. Allen later wrote in the TESOL Newsletter that he invited Dr. Alatis “with the exhilarating feeling that TESOL could be getting the really unique person ideally qualified to build the organization,” and noted that “no one else who could have done what Jim has done so superlatively over the years.”

In the ESL Magazine interview, Dr. Alatis also set the record straight about TESOL’s founding. “Contrary to popular belief, I was not the founder of TESOL. TESOL was founded with the support of five professional organizations: the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), the National Association for Foreign Student Affairs (NAFSA), the Speech Association of America (SAA), the Modern Language Association (MLA), and the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL).” He was, however, among the charter members of TESOL; in fact, he has member number 0002 (his wife Penny has 0001).

With Dr. Alatis at the helm, the association grew and became a major force in the field. At its inception in 1966, TESOL had 337 members and only five affiliates. When Dr. Alatis retired as executive director in 1987, it had 12,000 members and more than 60 affiliates. During his tenure, the association created its first special interest groups, held its first summer institute and its first annual convention, and began offering career information for TESOL professionals. With the TESOL Board of Directors, he also helped form the International Research Foundation for English Language Education (TIRF) and later served as TIRF’s board president. In 1986 Dr. Alatis was asked by Charles Z. Wick, Director of the USIA, to participate on USIA’s advisory panel for English language teaching.

Dr. Alatis’s service to the TESOL community did not end after he left the association. He also served at Georgetown University, Washington, DC, in numerous capacities, including dean emeritus at the School of Languages and Linguistics; Distinguished Professor of linguistics and Modern Greek; senior advisor to the dean of the Georgetown College for International Language Programs and Research; and director of the university’s master’s in TESOL program. Over the course of his career, Dr. Alatis also published numerous articles and books, served as an editor to prestigious journals in the field, and presented at conferences all over the world. He earned numerous awards as well.

In all he did, Dr. Alatis never lost sight of his vision for English language teaching. He explained this idea to one interviewer:

“Teacher education is the heart of the matter. The goal of teachers is to provide their students with the highest quality instruction possible. This can be done only if the teachers are themselves well educated and continue to develop professionally throughout their lives. ‘And gladly will he learn and gladly teach,’ Chaucer told us about a good teacher. This involves learning and teaching in perpetuity.”

To honor this vision, in 1987 TESOL established the James E. Alatis Award for Service to TESOL. The award honors one association member each year who has demonstrated genuine and long-lasting vision of what TESOL is and can be; the ability to combine professional and administrative roles in TESOL organizations; the ability and desire to represent and promote TESOL; and efficiency, personal dynamism, and good cheer.

The association also established the James E. Alatis Plenary, presented each year at the TESOL International Convention. Given by someone who has demonstrated outstanding service to the field, the plenary offers convention attendees the opportunity to explore the current state of English language teaching and consider its future.

Jim Alatis, as he was known to many, will be remembered for his energy and his commitment to TESOL International Association and to the field of English language teaching. “Our kind of teaching,” he once said, “which accepts other peoples’ languages and cultures as equally valid to ours, is essential to cross-cultural communication, mutual educational exchange, social justice, and, ultimately, it is devoutly to be wished, world peace.” As the association works to support and encourage the work of English language teaching, he would urge us, as he told one interviewer, “to continue to insist upon quality above all.”

In a prepared statement, TESOL President Yilin Sun, President-Elect Andy Curtis, and Past President Deena Boraie noted that “Dr. Alatis’ influence on the TESOL field cannot be overstated. The success that TESOL International Association enjoys today is a direct result of his pioneering leadership over its first two decades. The dedication he had to the field and the association continued throughout his life, and each of us would look forward to greeting him at the annual TESOL International Convention. He will be sorely missed, but the field and the association will continue to feel the impact of his work for many years to come.”

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The Alatis family has asked that, in lieu of flowers, those who want to honor Dr. Alatis make a donation to the TESOL Awards Fund