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30th Anniversary

Three 30@30 Specialists Mark Milestones in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion



After a record 2020 year – that saw a 3000% increase in our virtual programing – The Specialist Program has officially begun the year-long celebration of our 30th anniversary. 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.  

To engage all our Specialist alumni, celebratory events will take place each month of 2021 throughout the U.S., including our 30th anniversary kickoff with our 30@30. We have recognized a group of 30 alumni who had a profound impact on the Specialist Program as well as the field of English language education – and upon returning to their home states, we determined that they added immense benefit to their local economies, communities, and institutions.

We begin the celebration in January with this story about three 30@30 Specialists whose career milestones focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Deborah Healey, Ayanna Cooper, and Yilin Sun shared their keen insights about what those words mean for English language learning and the TESOL profession.

Deborah Healey

During her tenure as president of TESOL International Association in 2019-2020, and especially while overseeing the annual convention, Dr. Deborah Healey knew to be prepared for the unexpected. But a certain Teaching Tip session at the 2019 Atlanta conference resulted in an unforeseen catalyst for a major change in the organization. The session was titled “The N-Word: How to Engage ELLs’ Sociocultural Understanding.”

The session topic was accepted by the conference committee and was very well attended “because so many of us deal with inappropriate language with our students,” Healey said. “It seemed good to give audience members ideas on how to deal with it.” But she found out later that the presenter used the actual N-word several times. “She was not trying to do harm,” Healey pointed out, “but that doesn’t mean that harm was not done.”

Healey said the presenter had some good ideas about how to deal with inappropriate language among her Latin American students, but as she continued using the N-word, the audience grew increasingly angry and upset. As complaints mounted, Healey and John Segota (then TESOL’s associate director) set up a meeting with eight Georgia TESOLers and other Black members to investigate diversity in the organization. Healey explained, “That meeting made it clear that the N-word session was the tip of the iceberg.” Other issues were raised such as lack of inclusivity in TESOL and diversity among its leadership. That initial meeting galvanized Healey into calling for a task force – the Diverse Voices Task Force – to recommend improvements on diversity, equity, and inclusion for TESOL International Association.

The first step was to take stock of the diversity among members now. “We don’t track much of anything,” said Healey. “We track gender, geography, where you work. That’s it. That’s one thing that’s changing.” She added that it will be optional for members to respond to the new questions.

The Diverse Voices Task Force co-chairs Kisha Bryan and Eric Dwyer will report out its findings in March 2021. “I believe we will be a better association and influence on the field as a result,” concluded Healey.

Ayanna Cooper

Whether working with state Departments of Education or speaking at international conventions, Dr. Ayanna Cooper is, foremost, an advocate for culturally and linguistically diverse learners. In 2020, Cooper published two books that highlight the needs and stories of these students.  And Justice for ELs: A Leader’s Guide to Creating and Sustaining Equitable Schools is a practical resource for administrators and educators who are working to fulfill the obligations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for English learners (ELs).  Black Immigrants in the United States; Essays on the Politics of Race, Language, and Voice focuses on a population that has been neglected for too long. Both books provide a challenge to educators. “Are we creating trajectories for [our learners] to succeed?” asked Cooper.  “Do our words match our practices?

In And Justice for ELs, the focus is on building the capacity of district and school leaders to develop and manage English language programs and improve instructional practices. Cooper is heartened by the increased attention schools are giving to these issues now, although she knows there is a long way to go. She wants administrators, as they work on school plans and goals, to think ahead and “make certain that English learners do not come up as an afterthought.”

Black Immigrants in the United States, co-edited with Awad Ibrahim, is a collection of autobiographies and research articles that give voice to a “traditionally misunderstood, marginalized, and mispresented population.” While Black immigrants and refugees face many challenges, both in general and as ELs, the stories in this text also acknowledge their resiliency as they “navigate their lives in the United States,” explained Cooper. For educators, being empathic is not enough. Educators and administrators need to be pro-active, learning about the students they serve; only then can they stop the perpetuation of stereotypes. “Teaching English must become a form of intentional advocacy,” argued Cooper.

Cooper models this in her own career as a consultant and writer, and in her leadership role on the board of TESOL International Association.

Yilin Sun

Dr. Yilin Sun commends the progress TESOL has made in the years since its inception in 1966 and since she immigrated to Canada from China in 1985 (she is now a Chinese-Canadian American). She felt the lack of equity, not only being an immigrant, but through her work in higher education and training teachers as an English Language Specialist and Fulbright Scholar. She realized her immigrant status sensitized her to the issues her students have surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion. “Diversity is not a goal,” Sun said. “It is a means to achieving equity. Everyone can be successful by receiving an equitable and accessible quality education.”   

The primary goal should be to “bridge the gap between language, culture, and students’ life experience,” Sun explained, pointing out that when these areas are not supported, this can severely limit the progress of English learners. A book that has influenced Sun is Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. With a focus on how cognition intersects with cultural knowledge, it explores how students view their cultural identities and make meaning of the world. And, Sun argues, this can inform our teaching, which should be forward thinking.

“How do the skills and knowledge [they learn today] relate to students’ needs five years from now?” Sun asked. “If you integrate and focus on this concept, they will relate better to the learning and be more motivated and engaged. Student retention and success rates are higher.” Sun said she has adopted the 2015 TESOL Conference theme of “Crossing Borders and Building Bridges” as her guiding principle. “I want to step out of my comfort zone to learn from others, to bring people together, and to help more teachers and people make the ESL field more of a community. The goal is to help our students learn not only English,” said Sun. “They need to have a social conscience. They need to become critical thinkers and constructive social change agents.” Sun felt honored to be a tireless advocate and to dedicate her professional career to the calling of Crossing Borders and Building Bridges. She wants to embrace a culture of inclusion in the ELT field, address equity, access, and achievement gaps in education, and to empower learners and TESOL professionals to build a stronger TESOL community.



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