The role of the Teacher of English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) advisor is multifaceted. When people ask what we do, we explain the job responsibilities as facilitating TEFL teaching workshops, observing classes and holding post observation conferences, responding to weekly English Teaching Assistant (ETA) reports, and conducting research. However, we discovered that the key to fulfill all of these duties is our ability to communicate with one another. Throughout the past five months of working together, we have found great value in facilitating discussions that lead to greater understanding of one another’s culture.
We believe that through our own interactions, discussions, reflections, and co-constructed knowledge base, we have discovered successful strategies for collaboration. We have gained a deeper understanding of the Fulbright mission through our own joint efforts and now better appreciate the essence of what “a world with a little more knowledge and a little less conflict” means in the context of the Fulbright ETA program. In this essay, we hope to articulate the lessons that we have learned about communication and how they might be applied to the co-teaching relationships which are the cornerstone of the Fulbright ETA program.
Great collaboration does not start from day one. Rather it is a continuous process, which takes a lot of time and effort to develop. When we entered this position, we each came with our own educational, professional, and culturally-situated experiences and beliefs. Of course, we also brought our pride and competing goals! All of these differences were initially obstacles in our collaboration, but over time they actually served to strengthen our relationship.
At first, we tried to respect each other’s ideas, but at the same time we maintained our own perceptions of what we believed to be the right way to teach English to non-native speakers. In August, we tried to develop workshops according to our own ideas of what the ETAs would need to fulfil their job requirements. However, our beliefs did not always match, which made it difficult to create workshops together that we would both actually use once we went our separate ways. It was as if we were politely acknowledging one another’s great ideas without understanding the background and reasoning behind them. To illustrate, here are our reflections on our first mutual efforts.
I remember the first time Sarah told me about her workshop ideas, I was puzzled. It was before meeting the American ETAs. Her method of conducting workshops was very innovative and inductive. On the other hand, while developing workshops, I was drawing upon my experiences with Taiwanese college graduates who are more familiar with lecture based instruction. I was not sure how a student who had zero knowledge of TEFL could understand the theory and practice through such inductive ways of instruction. Although I believed my methods were valid and effective, I did not know the Americans. Perhaps her way was the right way. Maybe she knew more about these ETAs since they came from the same country and shared similar educational backgrounds.
I decided to adopt Sarah’s ideas in the workshops even though I did not understand them completely. I made this compromise out of politeness. After meeting the ETAs, many points that Sarah had talked about started to make sense to me. Unlike Taiwanese students’ inclination to listen and process information on their own, the ETAs were always ready to share their opinions and eager to contribute during the workshops. It was a pleasant and challenging surprise. This was when I knew I had to alter some ways that I conducted workshops in order to be more effective.
I recall reviewing the slides from one of Winnie’s summer orientation trainings. Initially, I was apprehensive about the information that she chose to introduce to the ETAs because a lot of the content was quite different than my own. However, over time I recognized the significance of her content and her approach to teaching. I noticed Winnie’s ability to articulate her ideas clearly to the ETAs. Not only was she able to explain the theory of language education, but she was also able to offer very effective pedagogical tools to support her ideas in the EFL context. I wanted to incorporate elements of her deductive methodology into my own style while filling in the information gaps in order to develop a more balanced approach.
At first, I was nervous because I felt as though I was compromising my own identity as a teacher in order to try and adopt elements of a methodology that were foreign to me. In a way, I felt as though I were an actress, performing the motions and speaking from a script, but not feeling the connection with my content or audience in the same ways as I had in the past. After a few workshops, I felt the initial discomfort of this new method fade as I slowly experimented with different strategies and started to redevelop my teaching approach in a way that felt meaningful to me.
The above examples were selected from the many reflections that filled our first month of collaboration. We both made compromises, especially due to the number of workshops that we needed to co-develop. Many times we yielded to the other while still holding our own beliefs tightly with pride. This happened until we saw the other’s viewpoints were proven to be successful or our own fell flat. Only over time were we able to discover the deep value of each other’s ideas.
After the initial month of orientation we both had a better sense of who the ETAs were and what they would be expected to do over the course of the year. We stepped back from our initial experiences as TEFL advisors and reflected upon the entire process and the long term goals that we hoped to help the co-teaching teams achieve. We spent a lot of time discussing and analyzing what went well and what we would improve upon if given the opportunity to host these workshops in the future. The month of orientation gave us a chance to bond professionally, as we now had shared experiences and shared professional goals for the future.
For our next challenge, we faced the task of conceiving, developing, and facilitating workshops for a more diverse audience composed of both the American ETAs and the Taiwanese LETs. However, to achieve mutual professional goals we needed to be able to communicate more effectively. To us, effective communication means being able to exchange messages with clarity and to appreciate the ideas that were deeply embedded in the other’s sociocultural experiences. The following are examples of cross cultural challenges that we have faced and how we have relied on one another’s knowledge and experience to overcome them.
I remember the first time that I received not-so-positive feedback regarding a workshop that I had hosted. It was from a local Taiwanese teacher who came from a different approach to language education than my own. When I first received the feedback, I was disappointed in myself in that I hadn’t delivered a workshop which met the needs and interests of all of the audience members. Initially, I wanted to keep the feedback a secret and tuck it away somewhere where it wouldn’t be found again.
However, I recognized that I needed to reach out and ask for help. I wanted to understand how to connect with the local Taiwanese teachers in a way that was meaningful to them. While Winnie and I had discussed this issue before, I had still unconsciously held on to my own beliefs of what I thought the local teachers would benefit from in regard to professional development. In order to alter my approach, I began to ask Winnie a lot of questions. I then incorporated her feedback into my workshops as well as into my reconceptualized understanding of the needs and interests of the local teachers. Rather than approach the audience with my preferred communication style, I had to step outside of my comfort zone and try something new.
Of course negotiating cultural boundaries is a steep learning curve that I must work towards every day, but I am grateful to have such a patient, insightful, and reflective colleague to help guide me through the process. Furthermore, when working within a culture that has an indirect communication style, I am grateful to have someone to help me learn how to effectively adapt my own communication approach to remain sensitive to the local audience.
It was fascinating watching and learning from Sarah’s creative style of teaching and I hoped I could inspire the ETAs as much as she did. However, trying to imitate at the surface level was not helpful. I tried to incorporate strategies that Sarah shared with me in our discussions, conduct activities Sarah provided, and adopt discussion questions that she used in her workshops. Everything seemed similar, but the message did not seem to reach the ETAs. For the longest time I was confused, not knowing what parts went wrong or how I should modify my teaching techniques, approaches, and skills.
The “A-HA” moment came when we were co-delivering a workshop in Taipei and Sarah was leading a warm-up activity. The activity was designed to help the LETs and ETAs start seeing the lesson content from the learners’ point of view. Sarah guided the workshop with questions that allowed both the LETs and ETAs to re-examine the importance of understanding learners and the learning process. The way Sarah facilitated the workshop was empathetic and professional; it allowed the teachers’ creativity to soar. Two points struck me right there.
First, throughout the whole time I had never truly related to the ETAs, nor understood what their prior knowledge and strengths were. What I had been trying to do was to impose my successful experiences on the ETAs and trying to have them adopt what I believed to be true in this Taiwanese teaching context. Second, throughout our countless discussions I had never truly understood Sarah’s teaching philosophy, but had taken it at face value. Even though we had shared, there was ultimately a lack of active listening and processing.
These reflections are meant to highlight some of the lessons that we have learned about communication. First, while we initially thought we had been listening to one another’s ideas, we failed to recognize the deep value and meanings associated with these ideas until we were forced to do so. These experiences taught us the importance of active listening, which requires the willingness to let go of one’s judgment and process a message from the speaker’s point of view. Second, only by facing our own weaknesses were we able to recognize and build upon one other’s strengths. We learned that we had to peel away the layers of our own pride and show humility before we could unite as a team and co-construct a new model of collaboration.
Now we try to develop workshops and communicate with our audience members by drawing upon our new mutual understanding of the local teaching context, the audience, and our own personal and professional strengths.
Over the past five months, we both gained insights from our personal and professional reflections. We learned that collaboration can be frustrating, especially when it feels as though there are many compromises. However, we also learned that this collaborative experience leads to invaluable rewards. From our experiences we have found that the ability to produce something that can impact a wider audience requires a deep understanding of the knowledge, culture, and experiences of those with whom we interact. With this in mind, we encourage those who work in cross-cultural partnerships to think about the following ideas.
First, be willing to swallow your pride and show humility. By recognizing your own weaknesses, you can develop strengths by learning from those around you. Second, listen closely and ask for clarification when necessary. Since the language we use to communicate is laden with meaning based upon our sociocultural experiences, not taking time to fully clarify risks misinterpreting the intended message. Third, avoid judging or overgeneralizing another person’s approach prior to understanding the reasons behind it. Quick judgments simply stop us from finding common ground and moving forward together. Try to understand the value in your partners’ methods or strategies. Last, try to develop shared professional goals. Accomplishing such goals is a rewarding experience that can help colleagues transcend cultural boundaries and unite over common interests.
We believe our experiences can be shared with the American ETAs and Taiwanese teachers who collaboratively teach for one year. Having a strong relationship with clear professional goals will set a solid foundation for an optimal learning environment for both teachers and students.
About the Fulbright Taiwan English Teaching Assistant (ETA) program:
The ETA program started in Yilan County in 2003 with nine ETAs. Since then, the program has expanded to six different counties to include: Yilan, Kaohsiung, Kinmen, Taichung, Taipei, and Taitung. The number of ETAs has grown from 9 ETAs in 2003, to 71 ETAs in 2014.
The ETAs in Taiwan work full time in elementary schools and junior high schools. The goal is to assist local English teachers (LETs) inside the classroom, while providing children with an opportunity to interact with a native speaker and learn about American culture. In addition, many ETAs facilitate faculty conversation clubs, lead library storytelling, volunteer at local charity organizations, and tutor students with special needs.