On a cold winter day in 2019 in the northernmost province of Kazakhstan, the snow-draped landscape glistened like white gold in the noonday sun. Community members stood in a circle on the frozen Ishim River chanting blessings for the brave souls taking the sacred plunge into the icy waters. One by one they descended a set of wooden stairs cut into two feet of ice to dunk themselves in the river, before retiring to heated tents for warm drinks. English Language Fellow Avi Tepfer took in the scene with a smile, grateful for the camaraderie and glee in his latest Kazakhstan adventure. Then, he too plunged into the rejuvenating winter water, completing the Epiphany ceremony.
“It all started when I saw the video “A Day in the Life of a Fellow,” Tepfer recalled, describing how he’d stumbled upon the life-altering link, which featured his former colleague, Sultan Stover. “Watching that video, I was captivated by the combination of community, adventure, and the purposeful work Sultan was doing as an English Language Fellow.”
After achieving his goal of becoming an English Language Fellow (Kazakhstan, 2018-2019), Tepfer is now taking on the role of English Language Programs Alumni Ambassador, sharing the stories of his adventures and professional growth with U.S. TESOL educators at events and conferences around the country.
At his host institution, North Kazakhstan State University, Tepfer instructed pre-service teachers in Methods of EL Teaching, organized professional development opportunities for K-12 teachers, and worked in partnership with Access classes and at American Corners. When Tepfer returned to the U.S., he continued this work virtually as an English Language Specialist, 2019- 2020, collaborating with six other Specialists assisting 12 of Kazakhstan’s state universities in pivoting to online instruction during the pandemic lockdown.
For one of his secondary projects, Tepfer facilitated an online course on Media Literacy for a group of 25 teachers. “This project helped me see how important media literacy skills are as an area of pedagogy,” Tepfer said. “Since completing my Fellow and Specialist projects, I’ve been designing new lesson plans that develop my students’ ability to detect media bias, misinformation, and disinformation.”
Tepfer has also been using his newly enhanced lesson planning skills to design curriculum for Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) for the New York City Department of Education. As a certified K-12 English as a New Language (ENL) teacher with experience teaching abroad, he now mentors new ENL teachers at a public middle school in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and adapts content for specific language learning objectives in English Language Arts (ELA) and Social Studies classes. “This work has inspired me to undertake more coursework to become dual-certified in ELA,” Tepfer reflected.
Working with diverse groups of teachers in a variety of contexts in Kazakhstan gave Tepfer an opportunity to reflect not only on the TESOL teaching model, but on American education in general. “When we see what is appreciated by others in our teaching, it allows us to reexamine what we are taking for granted,” Tepfer said. “Conversely, the assumptions we make about our best practices can be better evaluated when we experience the merits of a different system, too.”
I came back to teaching here in Brooklyn with a new arsenal of eclectic lesson plans based on the collaborative work I did with my Kazakhstani colleagues.
While Tepfer found his Kazakhstani colleagues eager to adopt aspects of the communicative approach to language learning that he shared with them, he was also learning the values of their teaching traditions. “I was really motivated by the idea of working with a balance of approaches and methodologies,” Tepfer said. By incorporating teaching techniques that were popular during the Soviet era, such as note-taking strategies and audio-lingual repetitions, with interactive group work, Tepfer evolved his teaching style. “I came back to teaching here in Brooklyn with a new arsenal of eclectic lesson plans based on the collaborative work I did with my Kazakhstani colleagues,” he said.
The plethora of cultural activities that Tepfer enjoyed during his time in Kazakhstan—hiking, swimming, ice-fishing, cooking, roller skating, singing karaoke, going to concerts—led to lasting relationships with new friends, students, and colleagues. Last summer, Tepfer returned to Kazakhstan to attend a three-day lakeside birthday celebration for his dear friend, Yevgeniy Petrovich, who has been teaching at North Kazakhstan State University for 50 years. “It was a great reunion with friends,” Tepfer said. “Camping and fishing, songs around the campfire, and I finally locked down the recipe for the fish soup we’d eaten on so many occasions.”
Karaoke in Kathmandu, Nepal, with Fellow, Fulbright, and Embassy colleagues
Tepfer stays engaged with his Kazakhstani colleagues virtually too, presenting at his former host institution’s professional development sessions, congratulating graduating classes he worked with, and speaking at the 50th year anniversary for the Department of Foreign Languages. “I love staying connected with everyone,” Tepfer said, noting that he’s also still in contact with many teachers he met through Access classes and at American Corners.
Tepfer representing English Language Programs at the ConnTESOL conference
Making the rounds at TESOL conferences as an Alumni Ambassador, Tepfer is engaged in the same kind of community-building and knowledge exchange he relished as a Fellow and Specialist. “Because I learned so much and broadened my worldview as a program participant, it’s exciting to be able to share the opportunity with new teaching friends and old colleagues,” Tepfer said.
Avram Tepfer was an English Language Fellow in Kazakhstan, 2018-2019, and an English Language Specialist, 2019-2020. His career as an educator began in southern Thailand, where he worked for three years teaching English to tsunami-affected youth along the Andaman coastline. Prior to his fellowship, Tepfer spent several years adapting the core content of English Language Arts and Social Studies curricula for English Language Learners in New York City’s public school system. He has continued this work at a public middle school in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, since returning to New York in 2020.
Stay tuned for our next featured Alumni Ambassador story with Adrienne Johnson.