Two 30@30 Specialists Share Challenges and Successes of English Teacher Training in Jordan and Egypt
After a record 2020 year – that saw a 3000% increase in our virtual programming – the Specialist Program is celebrating our 30th anniversary throughout 2021. Since 1991, over 800 English Language Specialists – representing the best of America’s educators from all 50 States – have encouraged critical thought and erudition, celebrated their cultural diversity, and showcased their American values and civic engagement strategies to millions of educators and students in 130 countries.
In January we introduced our 30@30 –a group of 30 alumni who have had a profound impact on the Specialist Program as well as the field of English language education. In addition, upon returning to their home states, these leaders have added immense benefit to their local economies, communities, and institutions.
Our August 30@30 story features two Specialists – Ann McAllen and Vivian Leskes – who describe the obstacles and successes that came with their advocacy for educators as teacher trainers in the field.
When Ann McAllen accepted a 2014 English Language Specialist assignment in Jordan, focusing on Syrian refugees who had fled civil war in their home country, she was well aware of the issues she would likely confront. Only a few years earlier, she had worked with teachers in Thailand in the border refugee camp of Mae La, where thousands of members of the Karen tribe lived after escaping persecution in Burma. Additionally, in her home state of Washington, she had assisted Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees in the 1990s. And just prior to her Specialist assignment in Jordan, McAllen participated in a workshop that focused on trauma — its impact on both victims and helpers, and how best to mitigate its effects. Plus, she was already a seasoned Specialist and was fully prepared to meet the assignment’s objectives and address participants’ needs.
Still, Jordan proved a unique experience for McAllen. In one teacher training, a daylong workshop at the Middle East Children’s Institute (MECI) in the capital of Amman, she worked exclusively with a group of Syrian refugees — English language teachers in their home country — who were now teaching Syrian children, typically in relocation camps. “The teachers were subdued,” says McAllen. “They just wanted to go home, back to their own country and culture.” At another training, held during the annual American Language Center (ALC) conference, whose theme that year was “Meeting the Social and Psychological Needs of Our Students: The Shifting Roles of Teachers in the Classroom,” the spotlight was on Jordanian English language teachers, whose classes had doubled in size to accommodate the influx of school-age Syrian children. Hence, the title of her conference plenary speech and its related training, “Reflections, Thoughts, and Ideas for Coping with the Stresses of Today’s Classrooms.” As McAllen recalls, “The teachers were so focused on dealing with overcrowded classrooms and mixed-ability students, they felt they weren’t delivering the psychological help needed by the students, particularly the recently uprooted Syrian newcomers.” Yet, both the MECI and ALC trainings had a common denominator — educators in situations of enormous stress.
To tackle the varied needs and concerns of the teachers, McAllen held three workshops at each training: coping with stress in the classroom, understanding different learning styles, and using creative writing in the classroom. For the stress-related workshop, McAllen relied on her knowledge of the impact of trauma. She not only had teachers brainstorm activities they could do with their students, but also those they could use for self-care, such as exercising, playing music, and relaxing over a cup of tea. While the mood was markedly different at the two trainings, McAllen notes that suggestions for managing stress proved universal. “It’s amazing how, no matter where you are in the world, we all have the same ideas for how to handle anxiety.”
McAllen additionally led group discussions with both sets of teachers on recognizing the warning signs of stress among students and implementing coping tools in the classroom, including guided imagery and storytelling. After all, the entire student body, Jordanians and Syrians alike, were dealing not only with classroom change, but also typical stressors such as peer pressure, school demands, and family issues. “Educators always take on multiple roles, no matter the circumstances — teacher, guidance counselor, nurse, social worker, even lawyer,” McAllen says.
In her creative writing training, McAllen wanted to show that relying more on imagination than rules when teaching writing empowers students, even beginning English learners. And in the case of a student population that recently experienced trauma, as with the Syrian refugees, creative writing had an additional benefit — activities such as freewriting, pictures with writing prompts, and bio poems could help them process those experiences. During the creative writing workshop with the Syrian teachers, for example, McAllen, following her teaching model of “doing rather than saying,” had them write poems using a variety of prompts just as they would with their students. What emerged were primarily pieces about their homeland. “It was always at the forefront of their minds,” she says. And the Jordanian teachers at the ALC conference saw how approaching writing instruction in a less structured way could free up their students. “Take away the strict writing regulations, and students gain confidence in their English language abilities,” says McAllen. “Plus, it sparks interest in other kinds of writing.”
Providing teachers with an awareness of different learning styles, another of McAllen’s workshops, also helped. “Teachers have to provide avenues of learning for the various ways students integrate information,” she says. Because of the many ways available to incorporate creative writing in the classroom and the varied exercises McAllen introduced, “the teachers were able to experience learning styles in action.”
While much of McAllen’s assignment in Jordan centered on the educational issues raised by integrating the Syrian refugees, McAllen also had the opportunity to work with other teacher and student populations during her assignment. An English Access Microscholarship Program (Access) teacher training near the Dead Sea brought in Access teachers from across the region, including Israel, Lebanon, and Palestine, and at a creative writing workshop she led with Access students in Wadi Musa, near the archaeological site Petra, students eagerly read their poems “without a hint of shyness,” she recalls.
Still, the Syrian refugees and the Jordanian teachers instructing them hold a special place in McAllen’s recollections of the assignment. “The resilience and optimism I saw in Jordan so impressed me,” she says. “My time there remains one of the most unique experiences I’ve had as an educator.”
Vivian Leskes has long been an advocate for training teachers to become mentors. In fact, her first English Language Specialist assignment — in Tajikistan, where she conducted a workshop for future mentors in a newly conceived English Teacher Mentors program — sparked her lasting interest in this area of expertise. She subsequently returned to Tajikistan several times to continue that work. For Leskes, even when an assignment has not been specifically tagged with the mentor label, she considers developing teacher communities to be at the heart of each of her assignments. “From Specialist to mentor, from mentor to teacher, from teacher to student — the goal is to create cascading levels of knowledge,” she says. “The result is a much broader pool of understanding.” Given her passion for and in-depth knowledge of the subject, it is no surprise that she was asked to be the plenary speaker and workshop leader at the 2018 NileTESOL conference in Cairo, whose theme that year was “Excellence: Students and Educators in Pursuit of Lifelong Learning.” As Leskes sees it, “Our goal is to create agency in teachers, to stimulate them to take responsibility for their professional development and share the knowledge they gain with colleagues and students.”
Leskes led with that message with her opening plenary speech, “Lifelong Learning: Taking Responsibility for Our Professional Development.” She wanted attendees to understand the importance of developing their own student-for-life practice before they undertook instilling that resolve in others, specifically colleagues and students. “Often participants will ask for a copy of my presentation, so they can give that presentation to other teachers,” says Leskes. “But I want them to extrapolate from my words what is relevant to their situation and culture, and not just mimic my language and point of view.”
To put that idea into action, among her various responsibilities during the assignment, Leskes led an eight-day mentor training with teachers from governorates across Egypt. Her purpose was to train a cohort of teachers to become mentors to educators in their region. After a year of mentoring in their regions, they were to return to Cairo during NileTESOL to offer guidance to a new group of mentors. The educators chosen to participate in Leskes’ training were indeed a select group — from an applicant pool of more than 250, only 20 teachers from secondary and university teachers were picked based on their pedagogical knowledge, English language proficiency, and most importantly, leadership skills. “We wanted teachers who had a history of demonstrating rapport among their peers,” she says.
For the training, Leskes considered it important to strike a balance between introducing the specifics of mentoring and having participants actually practice mentoring. Toward that end, Leskes presented the training from the perspective of a mentor, asking teachers to reflect on a number of critical points, such as what the greatest needs in their region were, whether they thought specific practices — peer observations, for example — would be welcome or questioned, and how practices could be customized to accommodate teacher and regional needs. “Everything was viewed through the lens of a mentor,” she notes. “I wanted to personalize the training as much as possible.”
Leskes also wanted participants to understand what makes a good mentor. She had them consider mentors in their lives and the qualities that made them positive role models — empathy and receptivity were high on the list — as well as the benefits gained from those mentors. Not surprisingly, confidence, independence, and inspiration topped that roster. Leskes incorporated into the training such topics as how teachers, in their mentor roles, could provide constructive feedback, encourage best teaching practices, and develop teacher support networks. Throughout the training, she kept in mind her personal directive to provide agency. “My focus was How can I help them research and seek out what they need as mentors?, not How can I give them what they need?” Leskes says.
The highlight of the training proved to be the concluding two-day practicum. During that portion of the workshop, each participant presented a lesson as a teacher and also mentored a presenting teacher; when not teaching or mentoring, teachers played the role of students in the classroom. However, after a lesson had finished, those teachers who had acted as students turned into mentors, observing the follow-up interaction between teacher and mentor, and providing feedback to that mentor. Leskes recalls it was “an intense experience, with all these different levels of mentoring.” To ease the stress on all concerned, Leskes familiarized participants with the feedback sandwich model, in which each evaluation starts and ends with a strength, and constructive criticism is “the meat” of the sandwich. “We worked a lot on feedback,” recalls Leskes. “As a mentor you have to put yourself in the mentee’s shoes to understand how a comment will be received. You don’t want your mentorship to crash and burn because you’ve given such negative feedback that mentees can’t hear it.” In the end, participants praised the practicum as the highlight of the training. “It brought everything together for them,” says Leskes.
Much to Leskes’ gratification, participants in the training have continued to collaborate and mentor one another, creating communities of practice that are now well-established on social media and in their regions. “I see that they give presentations, offer workshops, share advice, and provide support,” says Leskes. “As I hoped, they took ownership.”