fulbright Taiwan online journal

fulbright Taiwan online journal

A Preliminary Research Note on International Teaching Partnerships


The Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) Program is a collaborative effort between the United States and host countries around the world.  Bringing together young U.S. citizens with experienced English teachers in the host country, it provides enriched English language instruction to students in elementary, junior high, and senior high schools.  In Taiwan, the ETA program was introduced in 2004 when a group of ETAs were sent to Yilan County to participate in a co-teaching program with local elementary school teachers.  Since then, several counties have begun to participate in the ETA program, including Kaohsiung, Kinmen, Taichung, and Taitung, adopting the co-teaching model in selected schools.

As the mission of Fulbright is to promote international understanding, cross-cultural and binational partnerships such as the Fulbright ETA program give participants and stakeholders a unique perspective on intercultural understanding on a deeper level and enhance the richness and variety of language instruction.  During the 2012–2013 academic year, 33 English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) were selected and sent to Yilan (16), Kaohsiung (11), and Kinmen (6) for an eleven-month grant to work side by side with Local English Teachers (LETs) to plan and teach English lessons at designated schools.  During the grant period, some partnerships flourished; others encountered roadblocks.  The benefits of international partnerships were called into question at times when a strained or failed partnership threatened to hamper student learning.

Truth be told, the ETA program, especially the co-teaching model, goes one step further to provide a more complex context for visitors when compared to study abroad or international student exchange programs.  The hierarchy that comes with governmental agencies and the school system makes for an additional cultural layer that visitors need to deal with on a daily basis, not to mention a workplace culture that is usually absent from a simple study abroad experience.  Intercultural understanding in the context of international partnerships therefore warrants closer examination.  Factors of successful co-teaching relationships have been studied earlier, but the studies tend to examine the issue in a microscopic way, looking only at pairs of instructors and their effectiveness in the classroom.  This study takes a step back and looks at international language teaching partnerships in general and identifies factors that have a significant impact on the success of international collaboration in order to better prepare future visiting language teachers.  It is also hoped that the factors identified can be transferred to other types of international educational collaboration.

Research Questions

The current study aims to answer the following two questions:

    1. What major factors impact the success of the ETA cross-cultural co-teaching program from the perspective of visiting teachers?
    2. In light of the factors identified in the first question, what are the practical implications to better prepare future visiting language teachers?

Literature Review

The current study of international teaching partnerships focuses on the review of cross-cultural co-teaching practices as well as the increasingly popular phenomenon of international internships for future teachers.  Co-teaching, especially in the context of the Fulbright ETA program, has been studied for the past few years in Taiwan.  While this type of program has been found to motivate elementary school students to learn English and has received overall favorable reviews from stakeholders (Chang et al. 2008), its effects can be undercut by failed or strained cross-cultural teacher collaboration (Tsai 2007; Chang et al. 2008).  In fact, the complexity of this type of collaboration has generated more complicated views on cross-cultural co-teaching.  In a study on the Native English Speaking Teacher (NEST) program in Hsinchu, Taiwan, Wen-Hsing Luo points out that local English teachers tend to find working with visiting NESTs challenging, particularly if the NESTs are inexperienced or opinionated (Luo 2006; Luo 2007; Tseng 2012).

Luo’s studies mainly take the local English teachers’ perspective; the visiting teachers’ voices, therefore, were muted.  Later research soon caught up and filled the void.  Chen (2008) examined both local and visiting teachers’ experiences in case studies of three pairs of collaborating teachers.  Chen found that team-teaching is shown to be effective for student learning, particularly in the areas of managing a classroom, exchanging teaching ideas, sharing cultural perspectives, and providing for teachers’ language-learning needs (local teachers learning English or visiting teachers learning Mandarin).  However, in the case studies Chen also found that team-teaching didn’t achieve its potential benefits mainly because of personality conflicts between co-teachers or a lack of interest in collaborating.

The visiting teachers’ perspective is further explored in another study by Chen and Cheng (2010).  Zeroing in on native English-speaking teachers’ experiences in Taiwan, they examined three South African teachers in Hsinchu, Taiwan.  Success seemed elusive for the three visiting teachers as the case studies found that they confronted various problems, “including having to teach something they were not familiar with, managing misbehav[ing] students, and teaching large classes” (p 41).  A call for better preparation for visiting English teachers concludes Chen and Cheng’s study, which echoes the call of U.S. educators and administrators who advocate for teaching abroad, a growing trend in preparing future teachers.

In addition to cross-cultural co-teaching, international teaching internships, an increasingly popular way for U.S. college students to gain global experience, are a relevant and significant consideration for the current study.  Jiang and DeVillar (2011), in their study on U.S. student teachers in Belize, China, and Mexico, proclaim that future teachers have to be well-rounded educators in terms of working with increasing diverse student populations.  As a result, “[T]eacher-education programs increasingly promote student teaching in international settings as a substantive step in serving to develop teachers who embody these new competencies and instructional practices.”

The development of teachers’ multicultural competencies is also observed by Sharma, Phillion, and Malewski (2011) in their study of a study abroad program to Honduras for pre-service U.S. teachers.  “In response to a critical need in teacher preparation, study abroad programs aimed at developing multicultural competencies in pre-service teachers have proliferated across the United States.”  The trend has continued and was further confirmed two years later.  Landerholm and Chacko (2013) state that “[t]he paradigm shift of the twenty-first century is that teachers need to be team players who are skilled at operating in a variety of collaborative partnerships.”  Studying a student-teaching internship program in South Korea through Northeastern Illinois University, Landerholm and Chacko focused on the use of reflection in enhancing student teachers’ multicultural awareness.  However, this study stops at examining the interaction between the hosts and visiting teachers, making it unclear whether the multicultural awareness revealed in the study contributed to the success of the collaborative partnership.

The impact of teaching abroad has been generally positive.  The overseas immersion experience benefits student teachers in terms of “their beliefs about self and others as evidenced through increased cultural awareness and improved self-efficacy, as well as professional development in terms of global-mindedness” (Cushner & Mahon, 2002).  The intercultural development of pre-service educators is further supported by a study in 2011 by Marx and Moss in their research of a student teacher’s semester-long teacher education program in London.

Although the trend continues to be lauded by educators, challenges of teaching abroad have not gone unnoticed.  Way back in 2000, the rapid increase of Southeast Asian students in Australia and the United Kingdom prompted Bodycott and Walker to look at the teaching experiences of visiting scholars in countries “culturally foreign to their own.”  By examining two visiting teaching academics in Hong Kong, the issues of language, social and cultural distance, and the role of hierarchy was discussed.  Bodycott and Walker found that the development of intercultural understanding was insufficient in the curriculum and that the goal of cross-cultural understanding was not shared by both the teachers and students.

Quezada noted the following challenges to student teaching abroad as early as in 2004: first, that student teachers had difficulty adapting to local curriculums, and second that student teachers’ effectiveness was hampered by the language barrier.  The subjects, however, were able to gain a few positive experiences while teaching abroad.  One of them had to do with learning about themselves.  As they tended to live alone, the feelings of isolation, homesickness, and of being an outsider played a prominent role in their lives during their first weeks in the host country.  “The experience is later seen as a positive one since student teachers’ self-efficacy is much higher” (Quezada 2004).

International student teaching is similar to the ETA program in terms of cross-national workplace environments and the age of the participants.  The former, however, tends not to last more than a semester, or at times one summer, and the participants in such internships tend to take it as part of their course work.  Another significant factor that distinguishes these programs from the Fulbright ETA one is that ETAs may or may not have majored in education or language teaching, and only a few of them seek future careers in these fields.  The focus of most ETAs in the Fulbright program is more on international understanding and learning than about honing teaching skills.  In addition, some of the ETAs set their sights on Chinese language study; teaching, therefore, becomes a way into a language immersion program for them.  Not exactly fitting into the “international internship” model, they may be closer to another type of international partnership model known as “volunteer teaching” even though the ETAs do get scholarships for working overseas.  The Fulbright ETA initiative consists of 67programs of international collaboration across the globe (Fulbright U.S. Student Program website).  Nevertheless, studies on these programs appear to be few and far between.  The current research attempts to fill the void with implications for preparation of participants in cross-cultural, cross-national partnerships.

Research Design

Thirty-three ETAs participated in the study during their grant period (August 2012–July 2013) in Taiwan.  Ten of them also participated in a written survey three months after the grant period had ended and they had returned to the United States.  The research adopts a qualitative approach in examining the international partnership of the ETA program.  Information was collected through four stages: 1) written surveys of 33 ETAs midway through the grant period; 2) face-to-face interviews of 16 ETAs around the time of the written survey; 3) document analysis of 33 ETAs’ teaching observation reports; and 4) written surveys of ten ETAs three months after the grant ended.  Based on the grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss 1967), keywords and key concepts emerged as the researcher analyzed the written surveys and interview transcripts.  They were subsequently coded and grouped to form categories.  As of this writing, the researcher is also seeking to confirm these key concepts through behavioral demonstrations as documented in the teaching observation notes.

The study is not without limitations.  They include 1) some of the ETAs who were interviewed did not submit the final reflection.  There were only ten submissions of the final survey.  Out of the ten, seven participants can be counted as have fully participated in all stages of the data collection.  From that perspective, the sample size was significantly smaller than originally intended.  That said, the seven participants turned out to be great source of information as they are quite reflective of their experience.  The rich data allows the result of the study to be representative of the 2012–13 ETA group.

Preliminary Notes on the Findings

While the data are still being analyzed, a number of major factors impacting the success of an international language teaching partnership have emerged.  Below are the preliminary findings and a brief discussion of each.

1. Clearly described duties and well-defined expectations

Most ETAs felt that they could use a clearer job description and a well-defined set of job expectations.  One ETA reflected that initially he thought that he would be playing the role of a “sidekick” and that his job would be just to “act out” words and model English pronunciation.  When he realized that he was to make meaning contributions to lesson planning, he panicked.

2. Willingness to communicate for collaborating teachers

A pervasive view among the ETAs was that a lot of guesswork goes into the partnership.  Partly because of the language barrier, and partly because of cultural barriers, partners did not know how to react to or what to think of certain gestures or forms of nonverbal communication by local teachers.  For example, one ETA felt slighted and confused when her local partner failed to acknowledge their partnership but thanked the class helpers instead at the end of the local teacher’s term.  The ETA did not know what to make of it as it could be construed as a cultural misunderstanding.  Most ETAs gave their partners the benefit of the doubt and chose not to overreact, because they are from a different culture.  Such situations indicate that failure to communicate may have caused frustration and stress to build up over time.

3. General understanding of the host country and its education system

Most, if not all, of the ETAs were aware of Taiwan through their study of China before they arrived.  Very few of them, however, had a clear idea of the political history between China and Taiwan and of the current sociopolitical situation in Taiwan.  Although a brief introduction was given during the Fulbright orientation, it dealt mostly with what Taiwan is now instead of the influences of its rich international past, including interactions with the Dutch, Spanish, British, and Japanese.  In addition, most ETAs had a very vague idea of what their role was in the grand scheme of English education in this country.  The sense of importance of their assignment, therefore, may have been elusive as ETAs became preoccupied in the daily grind of teaching and coping with a foreign culture.

4. Stereotypes of English speakers held by people in the host country

This was a slow-burning issue with some of the non-white ETAs.  Because of race-based preconceived notions held by some of the hosting partners, tensions arose even before teaching began.  A number of non-white ETAs, especially those who were ethnically Asian, felt that they were at times considered “non-American.”  This had a significant impact on willingness to collaborate by both sides, and a number of partnerships suffered as a result.

5. The role of language and the perseverance of visiting instructors

Although studies have shown that the ability to speak local languages contributes to the success of any cross-national partnership (Fantini & Tirmizi, 2006), it is interesting to point out that language did not come up as often as expected in the survey, interviews, and final reflections of the ETAs.  An explanation is that most of the ETAs are learners of Mandarin Chinese and are capable of communicating on various levels in Mandarin.

It is therefore worth noting that the few ETAs who could not speak Mandarin had to persevere throughout their stay in Taiwan. Their experience was the outlier of the information collected, but it deserves to be noted as a critical factor in partnerships where language becomes a barrier.  The success of such partnerships, therefore, lies in the perseverance of the non-Mandarin-speaking visitors and their coping strategies for dealing with the language barrier.

6. Prior co-teaching experience

A number of ETAs mentioned that they had prior co-teaching experience in the United States before going to Taiwan.  However, their prior experience did not seem to play a significant role in dealing with issues that arose.  The same thing cannot be said about the host country.  The findings seem to suggest that when the host schools and collaborating local teachers have prior experience in cross-cultural co-teaching, the partnerships tend to be more successful than those of local teachers that do not have such experience.  In other words, careful choosing host schools or collaborating teachers is a major factor in international partnerships.

7. Room for meaningful input and creativity

Several ETAs pointed out that harmonious partnerships reached a different level of success when the ETAs were allowed to contribute meaningful input and creativity to their teaching.  In the first few months of collaboration, ETAs tended to defer to the local teachers, who were experienced teachers and who knew the students better.  However, ETAs started looking for ways to try out their ideas and teach on their own in the later stage of the partnership.  When their local partners gave them the opportunity to do so, partnerships were taken to a new level.  In the case of local teachers being unwilling to loosen their grip on lesson planning and the pace of class, ETAs tended to perceive the partnership as being strained.

It should be noted that the factor of the ETAs’ teaching ability is glaringly missing here even though it plays a significant role in student success.  Since the study focuses on partnerships, and since ETAs are not expected to have extensive language teaching experience, this factor does not figure prominently in the findings.

Practical Implications

Intercultural exchanges involve a wide variety of factors.  Fantini and Tirmizi in their groundbreaking study of intercultural competencies (2006) point out ten assertions that those engaged in international education widely believe.

– that intercultural competence involves a complex of abilities

– that learning the host language affects intercultural development in positive ways

– that intercultural experiences are life-altering

– that participant choices made during their sojourn produce certain intercultural consequences

– that all parties in intercultural contact are affected

– that service programs offer unique opportunities for sojourners and hosts, beyond traditional exchanges

– that people are changed in positive ways as a result of this experience

– that returnees lean toward specific life choices, life partners, lifestyles, values, and jobs, as a result of their experience

– that returnees often engage in activities that further impact others in positive ways

– and that their activities further the organizational mission.

                                                                (Fantini and Tirmizi, 2006, p.7)

The assertion about service programs is worth noting.  In many ways, the Fulbright ETA program is such a program.  Judging from the information collected for the study, its benefits go beyond traditional student exchange programs as the participants are involved in activities beyond on-campus student life and are treated as employees in a local workplace setting.  The findings of the current study, therefore, are informative in terms of preparing participants of international partnerships.  While the researcher agrees with Fantini and Tirmizi that a complex set of abilities is involved in developing intercultural competency, a number of critical factors may play a more significant role than others in successful international partnerships.  Based on the current findings, there are a few practical implications for enhancing the global competence of visiting language instructors.  Below are a few suggestions on training and program design for organizations that promote and coordinate international partnerships.

1. Define roles clearly from the get-go

Make it clear to young participants of international partnerships, such as the ETA program, that what they are involved in is not a study abroad or an international student exchange program.  They are expected to work in a foreign setting.  They are expected to respect the workplace culture and receive supervision under the hierarchy that has been established in the host country.  This can be done with a formal set of job descriptions and an assignment contract, for example, to mark the difference for the participants.

The visiting teachers should also develop a clear idea of their role in the larger context.  In other words, they should have a good picture of the education system of the host country.  Moreover, it would be helpful for the visiting teachers to understand the history of the host country and the current social, economic, or political issues it is facing.  This would prepare participants by helping to reduce confusion and even frustration when they encounter school policies that are based on a drastically different set of values and perspectives.

2. Enhance the ability to adapt

Without a doubt, this is the most important quality one looks for in international partnerships.  However, adaptability should be examined and discussed in a more detailed ways.  Training should be focused on two levels: 1) being adaptable in the context of interpersonal relationships, and 2) being adaptable in the context of a hierarchy that may be more rigid than that of the United States.

3. Develop the ability to strike a balance between respecting the host culture and asserting one’s own opinions or beliefs

When it comes to classroom management or philosophy of teaching, teachers of different cultures may take vastly different approaches.  In a partnership, visitors, though expected to respect the local culture, should find appropriate ways to express disagreement and make suggestions.  Training of such skills is critical to making the working relationship beneficial to all stakeholders.

4. Be resourceful

As pointed out by several studies, visiting teachers may feel alienated and lonely, far from the support systems of their home country.  The ability to build a support system in the host country is therefore a critical survival skill.  If the visitor speaks the language of the host country, it will help greatly to establish such a network because it is easier for one to reach out to the community outside of his or her partner.  He or she can make friends with other teachers, neighbors, or even clerks at convenience stores.  In cases when the visitor does not speak the local language, he or she may need to reach out to visitors who are in similar situations.  The key is the ability to be resourceful and to use what the host country provides to establish a new support system.

5. Set clear goals and cultivate the ability for reflective thinking

Clear goals help give visiting teachers a focus throughout their assignment.  It is therefore extremely helpful to have participants set clear goals and constantly reflect on their progress toward them.  Studies have shown that reflection facilitates educators’ professional growth and helps develop more effective teachers (Dewey, 1993; Landerholm & Chacko, 2013).  Reflections should focus on what can be done, even if the goals that are identified have not yet been reached.  Reflections can be done through a journal or regular conferences with peers or supervisors.  What is important is that there must be an audience for and a dialogue with the participants in response to their reflection.

6. Allow room for creativity within a hierarchical structure

Successful partnerships should allow participants to experiment with ideas generated by both local and visiting teachers.  If such programs are structured in a way that allows visiting teachers to take charge in some cases and try out their own ideas at various stages of the partnership, it will expand the benefits of international exchange and make the partnership more meaningful for the visiting teachers.

The author would like to thank Fulbright Taiwan for its general support in the research project.


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Picture of Chiung-Yao "Carolyn" Ho 何瓊瑤

Chiung-Yao "Carolyn" Ho 何瓊瑤

Carolyn Ho is a professor of English for Speakers of Other Languages and a CELTA trainer at Lone Star College-CyFair in Cypress, Texas.  As a Fulbright Scholar, she trained teachers for the ETA program in Taiwan during the 2012-2013 academic year.  In addition to TEFL and teacher training, her professional interests include international education and program administration.

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