In March 2022, English Language Programs launched a new exchange opportunity, the Virtual English Language Educator Program, an online initiative that virtually connects U.S English language teachers with educators and students across the globe. A direct outcome of almost two years of virtual Fellow programming during the coronavirus pandemic, the Virtual Educator Program provides a host of educational opportunities to U.S. educators seeking an online international exchange experience and expands the reach of English Language Programs to previously off-limit or difficult-to-reach areas of the world. In this story, six virtual participants attest to both the value and viability of these internet-based teaching assignments.
It was a dream scenario — I could continue my work as an English language teacher with a refugee population overseas while maintaining my full-time job in the United States.Karissa Cuffy
When Karissa Cuffy returned to the United States in 2018 after working for several years as an English language teacher in South Korea, she made a career change, taking a management position with a public service organization in Austin, Texas. Cuffy enthusiastically plunged into her new position, overseeing grants and partnering with communities and nonprofits to support a variety of projects, but she missed one vital aspect of her former overseas professional life: teaching English language learners as she had done in South Korea’s public elementary schools and for a nonprofit that aided the North Korean refugee population. Working with North Koreans held particular meaning for Cuffy, not only because her areas of expertise are developing curriculum for and teaching English to adult refugees and immigrants, but as the daughter of Trinidadian immigrants to the United States, she understood the challenges faced by individuals adapting to a new life.
Happily for Cuffy, she found a solution that brought all of her career interests together when she was selected for a virtual project. While Cuffy still maintained her day job, two evenings per week she taught English to Venezuelan refugees who had recently immigrated to Trinidad and Tobago. “It was a dream scenario — I could continue my work as an English language teacher with a refugee population overseas while maintaining my full-time job in the United States,” she says.
Before this experience, I’d established an instruction game plan that worked for me. I thought I’d figured everything out from a teaching perspective, but I was wrong. My work with students in Chiapas forced me to consider other possibilities.Stephanie Bolaños
Stephanie Bolaños also considers being able to balance her day job with her part-time virtual project a major draw to the program. Bolaños is the department chair for the English as a Second Language program at Alameda Adult School in California. Her virtual assignments, at Universidad Autónoma de Chiapas (UNACH) in Mexico, included writing workshops for undergraduate students and integrated skills classes at a university extension program. Additionally, Bolaños experienced an unexpected benefit — she left her professional comfort zone “in a positive way,” she recalls. “Before this experience, I’d established an instruction game plan that worked for me. I thought I’d figured everything out from a teaching perspective, but I was wrong. My work with students in Chiapas forced me to consider other possibilities.” Bolaños tried out new methods to build students’ confidence with English and experimented with innovative online classroom tools. The payoff, she notes, was “tremendous professional growth.”
I was able to constantly challenge myself to learn and do more.Kerry Zahn
That theme of growth resonates with Kerry Zahn, a long-time ESL/EFL instructor, who was selected for a virtual project in Morocco. One of her tasks was leading a biweekly Facebook Live presentation hosted by the Regional English Language Office in North Africa for its Facebook page’s nearly 20,000 followers. Zahn recalls, “I had limited experience with social media and was really nervous in the beginning — all the way through, to tell you the truth — but it quickly became one of the favorite parts of my assignment.” The topics of those sessions varied: In some, Zahn reviewed journal articles or shared teaching tips, and in others, she interviewed local teachers from the region or moderated panel discussions. Zahn recalls that “I was able to constantly challenge myself to learn and do more.”
The assignment gave me the chance to pursue creative new work opportunities.Amy Burden
Amy Burden, a visiting assistant professor at University of Memphis, echoes that sentiment. For Burden, whose virtual project was with Angeles University Foundation in the Philippines, the experience was filled with firsts: her first time teacher training online, her first time teaching a graduate level TESOL course, and her first time advising graduate students on their theses. “The assignment gave me the chance to pursue creative new work opportunities,” she says. It also allowed her to continue her university responsibilities at home and supervise her young children’s homeschooling during the pandemic.
That chance to evolve professionally also attracted Frederic Lim, a teacher in a New York City charter school. Lim taught English language classes to 25 Vietnamese Ministry of Public Service law enforcement officers whose jobs involved communicating with law enforcement officials globally, from police departments overseas to INTERPOL. Lim found that their vocabulary needs were highly specific, involving such topics as money laundering and human and environmental trafficking. “It was certainly a new area for me, but I learned how strongly these issues impact Vietnam’s economy,” Lim says.
Although these five educators were not physically in their countries of assignment, they had ample opportunity to learn about cultures and local issues. For example, in a follow-up assignment training middle and high school STEM teachers in Vietnam, Lim heard of the extreme flooding that annually plagues many regions of the country. Using this as a starting point, he adapted a project-based learning activity that he uses in his own New York classes, and posed the question, how can you prevent flooding in Vietnam? He asked the teachers to research the topic and come up with solutions, applying the five Es of scientific inquiry — engage, explore, explain, elaborate, and evaluate. For their final project, each group created either a slide presentation or video for the class that proposed a feasible remedy for Vietnam’s flooding problems. “I gained an understanding of a significant environmental issue of theirs, and they learned a new approach to teaching STEM courses,” says Lim.
I met so many new people in my field and expanded my cultural understanding of the world, all from the comfort of my own home.Pearlie Lubin
Other projects provided learning on a more personal level. Pearlie Lubin, a TESOL instructor at Dallas College and graduate teaching assistant at Dallas Theological Seminary, worked with both English Access Microscholarship Program students and English language teachers at the vocational training school Instituto Nacional de Aprendizaje (INA) in Costa Rica. Her assignment entailed a variety of projects, but one of her favorites was the weekly Conversation Club she held separately for Access and INA students. Lubin started the first day of those clubs with a brief visual presentation about herself, including her birthplace (Miami), her current home (Dallas), and her parents’ country of origin (Haiti). “First, I wanted to answer their unasked question, who is this person visiting our classes from the United States?” she recalls. That, in turn, generated conversations about participants’ interests — Marvel superheroes were at the top of the list — and culture. “Virtually, I’ve been all over Costa Rica, and what an adventure,” says Lubin. “I met so many new people in my field and expanded my cultural understanding of the world, all from the comfort of my own home.”
Teaching virtually to populations overseas is not without its difficulties. In Trinidad and Tobago, Cuffy’s students, contending with both lack of internet stability and access to computers, typically met for class on their smartphones. In addition, while the focus of her classes with the Venezuelan refugee population was workforce development (resume writing and interview skills, for example), Cuffy’s students typically worked during the day and needed time to have dinner, relax with their families, and “get their headspace together,” before tackling their evening English language classes with her. “They were so motivated, but still I had to keep in mind that each of them was in my classroom at the end of an already very busy day,” she says. Burden faced an entirely different issue in the Philippines: natural disasters. During her assignment, that country experienced a particularly harsh typhoon season, which often meant no electricity and, as a result, no internet in students’ homes. “To get online, my students would often have to find a local coffee shop that had power,” she recalls.
With so many engaging online tools available to educators these days, the virtual classroom has become a very exciting place to teach and learn.Frederic Lim
When the power was on, however, everyone found a wide array of online tools to support and enhance their projects. Zahn favored a variety of interactive platforms — Kahoot!, Nearpod, Pear Deck, and Quizizz — when working with her Moroccan participants. Burden depended heavily on Google’s educational products because they were free and easily accessible to students from both laptops and smartphones. Lubin had participants create a podcast using the digital notice board Padlet and a collage of their professional goals using the graphic design tool Canva. “I learned so many new apps and tools — they expanded my vision of what is possible in the classroom,” says Lubin. For Bolaños, the online recording tool Screencastify “saved the day,” allowing her to give participants oral feedback on their writing projects that they could save and access repeatedly. And among his treasure trove of virtual tools, Lim relied on the communication platform ClassDojo to motivate students and create a sense of community. “With so many engaging online tools available to educators these days, the virtual classroom has become a very exciting place to teach and learn,” concludes Lim.
The experiences of these six participants demonstrate how effective virtual teaching and training can be. The launch of the Virtual Educator Program in March 2022 is a testament to their success.