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My Cultural Adjustment Process to Teaching in an IEP (again)

I've learned from personal experience, research, and the literature that transitioning to a new place as a teacher can be and usually is hectic.  I just started teaching at the Center of English as a Second Language (CESL) at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale (SIUC) as part of my duties as the curriculum coordinator.  Teaching represents at least half of my duties the first year, but then it should be reduced afterwards when I assume more coordinating duties and responsibilities.  Although I learned a lot about CESL during my first few weeks before teaching, I knew I would be in for a bit of what I call unintentional hazing when I met my first class.

My dissertation focused on the cultural adjustment of English language teachers abroad, but I believe I can apply some of the models and theories to my experience here.  Even though I did not move abroad, I was faced with a larger proportion of students from the Middle East than I had before.  For most of my career, the majority of my students were from East Asia, and it took me a while to adjust to their individual and social expectations.  I will use Holliday's Host Culture Complex (1994) to help show the connection between my dissertation and my experience.

Host Culture Complex (Holliday, 1994)

Classroom Culture

Coming to CESL, I have had plenty of experience with the English language teaching and learning classroom in general.  I also spent a great deal of course work and research better understanding the variations of this culture, and I don't believe the CESL classroom culture is that much different than others.  I also had some experience teaching a intensive English programs (IEPs) like CESL in Wisconsin and Japan, so the IEP classroom culture was not new to me.

Student Culture

The student culture was a bit different from my past experiences.  Although I have taught Saudi English language learners before, they have never represented the largest proportion of students in my class.  Prior to CESL, I recall that my first essay writing course at the ESL Institute at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse had about 50% Saudis, but that was my largest group.  Here, seven out of my eleven students were Saudi.  I also had one Omani, one Iraqi, one Venezuelan, and one Chinese.  I've had experience with one Omani student who made a wonderfully positive impression on me in La Crosse.  And, of course, I've had lots of experience with Chinese students ranging from low to high motivation and from low to high English language skills.  So, this also marked the first time I taught an Iraqi and Venezuelan English language learner.  I knew that this unique combination of students would be a challenge for me as I was mostly unfamiliar with their English language learning experiences and expectations.

Host Institution Culture

With only three months into the job, I cannot confidently say that I understand the culture of CESL well yet.  I'm still very much into the early transition stages.  I chose to blog about this now because this week marks the end of my first term, so I should have a better understanding now that I taught one course all the way through, but I still don't have an understanding of the whole curriculum and how transitions from one term to the next work.

CESL is one of the larger host institutions I have worked for in regards to the faculty and student population.  In fact, it's probably the second or third largest English language teaching institution I have worked for.  I say second or third because I wouldn't really include my English Language Fellowship as an institution.  It is an institution, but not in the same sense as my other jobs which had their own building and their own sets of regular students.  The largest institution I worked for was Nova, a private conversation school (eikaiwa gakko) in Japan that had thousands of students and hundreds of teachers all across the country, at least during its peak when I was there.

I came to CESL at a somewhat stressful transition phase with the director leaving a few weeks after I was hired.  So not only am I in transition, but the whole program is as well and will be for the entire academic year.  It's an exciting time to be here, but nobody is certain of much.  My job is to help us become more certain of the curriculum.

International Education-related Cultures

This has always been the least clear category for me.  For CESL, I believe this culture emerges when CESL interacts with international agencies such as SACM, the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission, which seems to have a big influence on CESL because we have a high proportion of students who are funded through them.  A similar agency, which I had experience with, was JASA, which helped Japanese students adjust to living and studying in the United States.  Because I have indirect contact with these types of agencies, there's not much adjustment for me except to know that they exist and can influence the curriculum.

Professional-Academic Cultures

For CESL teachers, there are many professional teaching organizations to participate in.  At the international level, there is the International TESOL Association.  At the regional level, there is ITBE, the Illinois TESOL and Bilingual Education organization.  Some teachers also participate in MIDTESOL, which is the TESOL affiliate in the neighboring states of Missouri and Iowa.  Carbondale is considered a part of the St. Louis metropolitan area, so I assume that's one reason to participate.  When MIDTESOL conferences are in Missouri, there can often be closer than ITBE conferences in Chicago.  Some teachers also attend the SETESOL, the Southeast Regional TESOL Affiliate.  Many parts of the Southeast region are closer to Carbondale than Chicago.

Because my job is curriculum coordination, I will play an important role connecting the professional-academic cultures to the host institution and classroom cultures.  One organization that helps with this connection is CEA, the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation.  I am also working with a few IEPs in the area to develop a professional conference for IEP faculty and staff.  In this sense, I am participating in the development of a new professional-academic culture.

National Culture

If you weren't certain, Carbondale is in the United States.  The host culture complex model was intended for ELTs who teach abroad.  Although I'm familiar with American culture, I'd like to reframe this section in several ways: the dominant national cultures in the host institution and the influence of government and education policies on the host institution.

Dominant National Cultures

Currently the dominant national cultures in CESL are the United States (faculty and staff) and Saudi Arabia (students).  To successfully teach and work at CESL, I believe one must learn how to communicate effectively with both.  Ideally, faculty should be culturally responsive to all backgrounds represented in the classroom and not just the national or ethnic identities of our students.  Because Saudis represent a large proportion of our student body, it does create a hybrid "third culture" in our classrooms that is not quite American or Saudi, but a combination of both with smaller influences from other cultures represented in the classroom.  Although I have taught a few Saudi students in other programs, I don't believe I am culturally competent enough to teach them as well as students from cultures that I'm more familiar with.

Government-Education Policy Cultures

CESL is situated in Southern Illinois University, a public university, which is dependent on the funding and policies of the state of Illinois.  In 2015, we are very much aware of this relationship because of the state budget crisis and the critical perspectives on higher education from the media and government officials.  Although CESL's culture seems healthy, the anxiety brought on by the threat to the status quo of state-funded universities can create a toxic work environment.  We can only find comfort in the fact that this is happening to many colleges and universities around the country and that many IEPs like CESL are a source of revenue that are less likely to face imposed cuts compared to other academic departments.

Unintentional Hazing

I consider the early transition process to a new context in the same field an unintentional hazing because new teachers and staff learn about the unwritten or indirect rules of the culture by making mistakes.  Although I tried my best to learn and follow the rules and procedures of CESL, there were many times when I was "hazed" by not completely learning or following one of them or not completely understanding the expectations of my students and colleagues.  In an intensive English program, I believe this hazing is more pronounced compared to less intensive programs because you have to learn as quickly as your students or else you end up lost or burned out quickly.  One of my research interests is looking for opportunities to reduce the length of this lost or burnout phase by identifying ways to help new teachers.  As one of my professors at Iowa said, you cannot risk the "sink or swim" strategy on your students because there's always the risk of drowning.  Drowning does not help students swim.  Using the same metaphor, drowning or even treading water does not help teachers develop the confidence and skills they need to teach successfully.

Holliday, A.  (1994).  Appropriate Methodology and Social Context.  Cambridge, UK:  Cambridge University Press.


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