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New degree trains English instructors to teach in challenging areas of the world

by Monica Smith

Dec 10, 2021, 2:00 PM.

The online M.S. in Foreign Language Education: Teaching in Challenging Contexts track, the first program of its kind, provides a pathway to equity through language for the underserved.

English is the language of global communication and commerce. It’s also, more and more, the language of education and allows people, regardless of where they are in the world, to have access to opportunities, states Eric Dwyer, associate professor of Teaching and Learning with the College of Arts, Sciences, and Education.

Dwyer has traveled all over the world. He was a Fulbright scholar to Rwanda in 2010 and traveled to Afghanistan in 2014 as a Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) instructor to help teach Afghan and Pakistani faculty. He has witnessed what displacement and poverty do to war-torn countries and how people suffer firsthand.

Through these travels, he understood clearly, despite the dangers and need for high security, “colleagues will drive through in red zones, dangerous zones, in order to get lessons about teaching; they will put their lives at risk in order to attend a workshop.” They’re teaching the “Malalas” of the world, he explains, referring to Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate. Malala is known for defying the Taliban ban on education for girls in Pakistan. Dwyer says that these colleagues do what they must do out of need and love for their country’s people.

“How do you teach under those circumstances? The people who are interested in answering those questions are the ones we're trying to meet in this program,” Dwyer says. “My students in Rwanda all had high aspirations, but sometimes they were just trying to get through the day.”

Access to education

It was these overseas experiences that led Dwyer and his colleagues in the Foreign Language Education program to help create FIU’s newest TESOL degree, the M.S. in Foreign Language Education Teaching in Challenging Contexts track , the first master’s degree of its kind in the world that focuses on teaching in economically disadvantaged environments. The program focuses on both international and domestic situations, often handling instruction with limited and inconsistent technology from remote areas. The 100 percent online, 30-hour master’s degree, which launches its first cohort in August 2022, takes just a year to complete. Dwyer adds that the fully online degree allows TESOL instructors the flexibility to work where they are and continue their studies.

Central to the program, students learn to teach TESOL instructors in a way they understand, with respect to culture and without “colonialist” themes, maintains Professor Aixa Pérez-Prado.

“We’re giving them something that they need—access to English and the ability to use English for the purposes of improving their circumstances,” affirms Pérez-Prado.

Speaking peace

Pérez-Prado, who has done workshops in Italy, Spain and Guatemala, and who has taught in Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Morocco and domestically, teaches a class on “love and language” within the program, which includes peace linguistics to promote peace building. 

“We know that language is powerful, and it's been used to discriminate and marginalize. Our focus is to be collaborative in language, to add to our linguistic repertoire, not to stigmatize any language or limit its speakers,” offers Pérez-Prado. The value of the program is in its ability to encourage students who will be teachers to see people with other languages and cultures as people they can help, she highlights.

Creative instruction that builds equity

Dwyer and Pérez-Prado describe how teaching English in these locations can be challenging because of a lack of resources. There may not be access to computers or even books, which require creativity to generate teaching moments or activities.

“I very much encourage my students to be creative and eclectic teachers and to take what they have in their surroundings and turn that into activities. I teach creative pedagogy. For example, we'll imagine that each of us has only five objects to use in a classroom, none of which are paper, computers, boards or other teaching tools. How are you going to turn those five objects into 20 lessons that teach language while promoting peace building and collaboration across cultures?” asks Pérez-Prado. 

The degree, mentions Professor Ryan Pontier, answers the need for equity when it comes to race, gender and poverty. “English is used throughout the world, in very powerful ways,” he says. “So not providing access and training in English—it's just a promulgation of oppression, as opposed to opening opportunities for equity,” affirms Pontier who describes the ideal candidate for the degree as someone who is a community changemaker.

Dwyer notes that graduates of the program should find themselves a little more confident in their abilities should they be selected to work in the Peace Corps, as an English Language Fellow, with UNICEF, in refugee camps, or with non-governmental organizations forwarding positive education.

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