Three 30@30 Specialists Reflect on Resilience, Community, and the Rewards of Working in International K-12 Education
September 22, 2021
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 September 30@30 story features three Specialists – Linda New Levine, Joan Kang Shin, and Eve Smith – who share the challenges, breakthroughs, and rewards of their unforgettable experiences as K-12 teacher trainers and educators around the world.
Linda New Levine: Strength Through Cultural Differences
Before Dr. Linda New Levine became an English Language Specialist, her extensive experiences abroad as an educator and teacher trainer through the Peace Corps, the Fulbright program, and other international exchanges had uniquely prepared her for the opportunities and challenges inherent in the Specialist program. For example, she had already worked on several assignments in China when she visited Guizhou province on a Specialist assignment in 2014, but a natural disaster ensured that this experience was unlike any she’d had before. “I remember traveling there on a bus with a colleague of mine, and that bus took seven hours to get there. The roads were horrific,” she recalls. The adventure only intensified when she reached her hotel. “Every morning, at 6 o’clock, I would do a Skype session with my husband. I remember one morning my husband said to me ‘What’s happening?’ and what he was seeing behind me was that the entire hotel was swaying. We were having an aftershock from an earthquake!”
In spite of these potentially calamitous circumstances, this trip was particularly rewarding for Levine due to its uniqueness and the enthusiasm of the students and teachers she encountered. “That was actually one of my favorite trips of all because it was so different from what I had learned about China since first teaching there in 1981,” she says. “The K-12 teachers were diligent, wanted to learn, were really happy we were there–it was just a great, fun experience.” Such “emotionally compelling” experiences, in her view, make for some of the best memories and the most intimate views into other cultures.
That same adventurous attitude typifies Levine’s work as an English Language Specialist; every assignment, in her view, is worthy of the same degree of pragmatism, positive thinking, and resourcefulness. A prime example comes from her 2019 assignment to Malaysia, which featured a three-hour public speaking workshop for 40 English Access Microscholarship Program students. The Access program is designed for students aged 13-20 from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and while Levine had worked with Access teachers before, this was her first experience with Access students. What she found were students and teachers who were eager to interact and learn, but there was a catch. “I had asked their teachers prior to this workshop if it was alright if boys talked to girls and they agreed,” she says. “But when I actually lined them up and they saw that some boys were facing girls, they decided that wasn’t very fine after all. So, we had to do some maneuvering and get those girls to move around a bit. Ultimately, because of the nature of the activity, they were constantly moving and they did spend about one minute talking to a girl, and then a boy, so we did manage to mix it up.”
Thinking on her feet, Levine had quickly figured out a way to work within the cultural norms of her environment to make the lesson a success. “When I realized that pairing students in that way might be a problem, then I devised other strategies where students could select their own partners. In that case, the girls all chose girls, and the boys all chose boys, and that was perfectly fine. It didn’t alter the nature of the instruction one bit, and everyone was a lot more relaxed in that situation.” More to the point, she was satisfied that the activity had engaged students of all backgrounds in the Access room, in which boys had sat in the front, and girls had quietly sat in the back when she entered. “I was happy to see that some boys volunteered to speak, and some girls did as well,” she says of the event. And in the process, she had also modeled this critical classroom management principle with the teachers she was working with.
This eagerness to embrace cultural differences while at the same time introducing equitable learning opportunities for all students is central to Levine’s teaching philosophy. She says that one key to enacting change in unfamiliar environments is embracing your own status as an outsider. “As I traveled around Malaysia, I was in various communities that were very non-traditional while others were much more traditional. So, I was constantly having to re-assess the values of that particular culture to see which ones were more traditional and which ones were not.”
Communication is one area which is particularly impacted by cultural differences in Levine’s view, but such differences are better celebrated than maligned. In Malaysia, “the communicative style was difficult to read because people would often say whatever they thought would make the listener happy.” Getting clear confirmation from school leadership can be a challenge in these circumstances, one which requires frequent clarification questions and discussion. Still, there’s a silver lining. “It’s kind of nice to be in a culture where nobody wants to create any negative vibrations among each other,” Levine says.
Despite facing the challenges of being booked almost nonstop every day as a Specialist, and of needing to be “on” all the time, Levine maintains that the most memorable and successful experiences in her career have often been borne out of obstacles. She describes one trip to a rural Malaysian boarding school as an illustration of this. Teachers immediately brought her to the nicest room the school had to offer, but the seats were fixed in place, which limited classroom activities. After an impromptu student parade, complete with elaborate costuming, the power cut out in the room. However, she saw opportunity where others may only have seen hardship. “What was decided was that we would go up to a room on the second floor which was actually an open-air room that had lots of tables, lots of chairs, a nice big screen and working electricity. As it turned out, that ended up being a fantastic venue for the kind of work I’d be doing with the teachers that day, so it worked out beautifully. They got to show me the nice room, they got to feed me, they got to put on the parade and showcase the students, and then in the end I actually got to do my workshop as well. It turned out very well!”
Eve Smith: Teacher Training and Resilience
With Fellow and Specialist engagements in 12 countries over her career, Eve Smith has built an extensive repertoire of teacher training experience that can be applied in multiple and varied contexts. In 2019, she traveled to Pakistan as a Specialist to work with madrasa teachers from primary and secondary schools. When teaching children, she says, “there’s so much you can do. They’re open, and they absorb knowledge. You can really shape their views [in a way] that will then carry into their university studies. For example, how they perceive English language teaching and learning, which may accelerate their intrinsic motivation towards learning English.” Transforming student perceptions of learning English is one of Smith’s main workshop objectives because it is one of the aspects of English language learning she sees her students struggle with the most.
In Pakistan as well as other countries where she’s worked as a teacher trainer, Eve says that modeling is key to her approach. Her goal in teacher training is sustainability. “I always go in thinking I’d rather [the teachers] not ever need me again,” she says. “I want them to get to the place where they’re passing [methodology] on to future generations.” Sometimes Specialist projects include a follow-up component, and Eve has had the privilege of getting to see her projects evolve, when returning months or even years later.
Once, for example, she was visiting a winter camp in Ukraine that she had worked with five years prior. “We were doing observations. I had forgotten about some of the activities being used until I saw the teacher doing them in the classroom, and they were successful. The teacher looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, you taught me this!’ Going back, working with the teachers, and seeing them utilize some of the activities that we’ve taught them– how well they’re doing, and how much they connect with the students– that to me has been very rewarding.”
In addition to modeling fun and engaging activities in youth-centered classrooms, empowering students and colleagues to be aware of the emotional complexity of trauma and how this might influence the classroom is central to Smith’s pedagogy. This approach is informed by her own experiences abroad, from surviving natural disasters to living through politically fraught situations, and it emphasizes use of yoga and meditation to find resilience in difficult circumstances. “[My work] has always been about the core of the person and helping them to be the best person that they can be,” she says. This sort of self-care is as important for teachers as it is for students, a point Smith feels is too often overlooked in life. “As teachers, we really are the first people who would notice problems students are facing. That’s why we have to keep ourselves healthy. If I’m stuck in myself due to being overwhelmed, I’m not going to see that my student is suffering in a way that might need an intervention with a school counselor.”
Many of Smith’s methods are considered unconventional at first by the teachers and administrators she encounters on Specialist engagements. While activities such as having students hit the blackboard with a fly-swatter, as she introduced at madrasa teacher trainings in Pakistan, are often met with excitement by students, with her colleagues she understands the need to form a lasting connection before conveying an activity. Her approach is to humanize herself and her lessons through fun and engaging activities with the teachers. “When you first go into wherever you’re working, your audience is excited, but they’re excited because they often see you through their perception of an American,” she says. “They don’t see you, the person yet; it’s up to you to create a sense of connection. Many teachers believe that what might work for my students wouldn’t necessarily work for their students because I’m American and I have different students. When we do activities and I ask them how they might be adapted to their own lessons, the teachers begin to see me as a teacher like them. Then, they become more receptive to the material in my workshop.”
The skills Smith has finetuned during her Specialist engagements continue to inform her current work as an educator in a Hong Kong university. “One of the most powerful things that I took from my experience as a Specialist was listening,” she says. This is critical in the Hong Kong classroom because the students feel that they have a voice that is understood. Not only does this help develop a connection between Smith and her students, but it fosters their intrinsic motivation to learn English. Finally, she says, “Understanding how to listen and be present with people has enabled me to connect with students and teachers, to make that bridge between people which we have to establish very quickly as Specialists.”
Joan Kang Shin: Engaging Young Learners Through Song
In the fifteen years since Dr. Joan Kang Shin took her first English Language Specialist assignment in Saudi Arabia, she has developed teacher training workshops in Morocco, Libya, and Russia, among other locales. Her extensive involvement in the program stems from its commitment to K-12 education. “The interest and enthusiasm around the world for teaching English at increasingly younger ages has grown rapidly, and teachers need help to be better prepared to teach children. As a result, most of my assignments as a Specialist have been focused on helping those teachers learn how to teach children. It is my passion to work with teachers, and especially to make their classrooms more engaging for young learners.”
Over the years, Shin has encountered changing educational systems, particularly resulting from lowering the age of English education to primary school levels, and a need for professional development in the countries she has visited through the Specialist program. She’s experienced a paradigm shift in her own approach, away from teacher training per se to teacher development, which she sees as essentially different. “When we continue to call programs ‘teacher training,’ it puts teachers in the wrong mindset from the get-go. We are not prescribing what teachers should do each lesson but showing new ways of teaching and learning and encouraging teachers to reflect on how to apply these to their own classrooms. It’s really about developing yourself as a professional.”
In her work with teachers of young English learners globally, Shin has identified another issue that teachers–and parents–are facing: engaging children within the virtual learning environment created by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “Imagine what kids normally see on a screen, on a TV or a computer or your cell phone. What are the things that they are looking at that entertain them? You’re competing with that in addition to whatever other distractions are happening around a child.”
The remedy to this obstacle is not only well-suited to current COVID circumstances but was informed directly by her work as a Specialist. Early on in her career, Shin had a memorable experience teaching Libyan teachers how to use traditional American songs to teach English. After a workshop focused on using songs to teach English, she was delighted to find the teachers wanted to perform the same songs for her, but using locally relevant harmonies and rhythms. “The work I was doing as a Specialist opened my mind to the ways that people from other cultures come together through song, even singing our traditional songs in different ways,” she says. “What we as humans have in common within our cultures is that we are engaging kids in developmentally appropriate ways to teach them about the world around them using things like songs.” She says that singing songs with children and reading aloud to them through teleconferencing software such as Zoom are great ways to engage them in language learning, particularly when using fun features such as the ability to put the presenter into the shared screen to make these activities come alive.
Her experiences in the Specialist program have informed much of her current work with National Geographic Learning, where she’s a co-series editor and co-author for the Welcome to Our World course books for young English language learners at the preprimary level. Following on the success she’s had with similar approaches through her work as a Specialist, using international children’s songs from around the world is a major feature of the series. “Because I was getting to know so much about what was happening in so many different countries through my Teaching English to Young Learners Global Online Course (through the U.S. Department of State’s OPEN Program) and through visiting many countries with the Specialist program, I was better able to develop materials as a series editor for my National Geographic Learning series,” she says.
For Shin, the benefits of life as a Specialist go far beyond professional development, however. Cultural exchange is a way of opening one’s mind to the diversity in other countries, as she found on a trip to Elista, Russia, that put her directly in contact with the region’s considerable ethnic Korean community. Of the experience, she recalls that “It was fascinating to see how diverse Russia is, and that even though I was going there as a Specialist to represent the United States, it was my ethnic background that really caught the attention of this community, and they really wanted to reach out.”
With this in mind, Shin’s advice to educators is to take the opportunity to join this prestigious program if given the chance. “Being part of an exchange like this is a great way to advance the ways in which we’re teaching English around the world and represent perspectives from the U.S. We’re a very large country, with diverse people, diverse points of view and differing perspectives. I think the program is a wonderful way to make that person-to-person cultural exchange through education. No matter what you do later, in my case as a professor and teacher educator, there will be so many ways that the experiences you have in the Specialist program will inform the future work that you do.”