Conference Call: Teaching the Teachers

by Bethany Pillow '10

Each year, graduate and undergraduate students alike are spurred on by their professors to submit their papers to regional, national, and even international conferences. Months later, they look around in disbelief when they realize they are mere miles or minutes away from presenting their own research and original ideas in front of peers, professors, and the legends of their field. 


APU graduate students Dreah Jin and Pauline Li were excited to attend the August 2009 Asia TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Conference in Bangkok, Thailand. They did not, however, expect to be more than spectators when they signed up to go with other students from their master’s program. 


Mary Wong, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Global Studies, Sociology, and TESOL, leads a team to the conference each year to learn about the latest research and strategies for teaching English to non-native speakers. When the conference committee called for potential presenters to submit their papers for review, Wong encouraged the members of her team, including Jin and Li, to try for a slot. If chosen to present, the students would receive $300 from the conference to help with travel costs, and an additional $500 grant from APU.


Jin and Li proposed a presentation on “Strategies for NNESTS (Non-Native English Speaking Teachers) to Stimulate and Sustain Learners’ Motivation,” a topic both have experience with as international students. Growing up in China, Jin saw the difference it made when teachers would engage their students and take a personal interest in them. Li, who attended school in Taiwan, remembers the difficulty of learning English in a class where “the teacher lectured, and the students sat.”  


Now entering the teaching field themselves, they are faced with negative stereotypes of non-native speaking teachers. Jin taught for three years before entering the graduate program. She saw time and again that, regardless of a teacher’s credentials, “advertisements in the field ask for native speakers.  Employers just assume that non-natives are not proficient.”


Jin and Li hope to change that assumption. Their unique perspective caught the attention of the committee, which asked them to come and present at the conference.


“I had never presented at such a huge conference before,” Jin said. “Most of the presenters were professors and teachers—we’re students!” 


Wong, also selected to present at the conference on the importance of faculty-led teaching trips, helped them prepare. When the time came, Jin and Li’s presentation drew interest and held the attention of their audience. Their original topic even drew the attention of a TESOL board member who attended and discussed the issue with them following the presentation.


After the conference, a working trip to stay and teach at a refugee camp on the border of Thailand and Burma gave the team the opportunity to put their new-found tools to the test. The trip proved to be a two-way learning experience for Jin and Li. As they partnered with the teachers on site, they brought new skills and strategies to the table and were in turn challenged and opened to new possibilities through what they observed. The team fulfilled the purpose of the trip—to hear from others’ experiences, reflect on and present their own, and then have those ideas tested through hands-on learning.  


These student learning experiences demonstrate why is it important for professors to lead by example, and to present the same calls to papers to their students that they themselves receive. By doing this, they partner with students for professional growth. Some do this by researching alongside students, creating a combined study. Others encourage students to submit their own proposals, and help those who get accepted to put forth their best. Students and their audience learn from the research and material itself, but the benefits clearly extend further. 


A conference in Thailand provided the opportunity for two graduate students to have their eyes opened to the first-hand realities of teaching in third-world settings, and to offer their unique insights to influence other new teachers, veteran educators, and even scholars in the field—the people writing their textbooks.