Studying Abroad: A Must for Every TESOL Minor

by Sara Anderson, December 2007 graduate & University of WI – La Crosse TESOL minor

Minoring in TESOL at UW-La Crosse can be a hefty commitment—it requires 22 to 26 credits, two semesters of a second language, and an array of classes from all sorts of departments that, unless you’re a minor in International Studies, you won’t find too helpful for double-dipping on your transcript. But despite the demanding coursework that prepares every TESOL minor for a job in the challenging field, there’s something vital missing in the TESOL program: a requirement to study abroad. Regardless, most of my fellow TESOL minors have studied abroad—or traveled for an extensive amount of time on their own—and have come back from their experience glowing. Their commitment to teaching ESL always seems revived after they return from some other continent, excitedly sharing their stories of travel. And as a veteran of an overseas adventure in Spain, I too have shared similar experiences. As graduation looms, I can agree with many others that, although UW-L’s demanding TESOL program has thoroughly prepared me for a career in TESOL, it is studying abroad that has given me the experience and wisdom I need most to teach multicultural students well.

Before studying abroad, I taught a pronunciation lab as part of my internship credit requirements. Although I thought the lab went well, I felt like I couldn’t quite relate to the students—I lacked international experience. Most of the time, my curiosity about other cultures overpowered my desire to plan lessons, so labs often turned into Q & A sessions. I was surprised at how much I cared about the traditions, customs, and everyday lives of my students—and hearing those tales about a far-away land was intriguing enough to spur my interest in studying abroad myself. All my students were adjusting toAmerica, painstakingly learning English and adapting to our way of life. If they could do it—leave the comforts of home and study in a foreign country—then why couldn’t I?In the average ESL classroom there is a clear division of power, most of it given to the teacher. But strangely enough, I felt I had too much of it. I didn’t know what it was like to be unable to explain myself in a second language. I had never experienced mental exhaustion after weeks and weeks of attempting to learn a second language, but feeling like you've made little or no progress. I had never gone through any of this, and thus, I was unable to relate to my students on an empathetic level. I was insensitive, naïve; and I probably had a bit of an arrogant attitude towards the students in my classroom. After all, being an ESL teacher is not about having power, it's about giving student's theirs. So, I decided to live somewhere where I would be nearly powerless for awhile. I packed for Spain.

On a sweltering, steamy day in September, I was thrust into a foreign environment that seemed to be the furthest thing from understanding—I was on my own, broken Spanish and all. I struggled to order food in a restaurant, to buy a pair of shoes in a store, to explain to my host mother that I was sorry for taking too long of a shower. Life was tough, and it took months to adapt completely. Nearly every skill I had learned in the United States was useless, except for my ability to nod and smile when appropriate.  Finally, I had no power. I needed someone who had been in this situation before, someone who understood. So I emailed the few people I knew could help me—my former students. They knew what this whole adaptation thing was about, and they were pros at handling the various stages of culture shock. And sure enough, their words were encouraging, comforting, and most of all, full of truth and insight. I was going to be ok.

As I said before, studying abroad has been the most important "requirement-that-everyone-does-anyway" in my TESOL minor studies. I now know what it’s like to be in a confusing situation, to wish you knew a second language better, and to be a bit frustrated at yourself for not having learned it well enough. I know what it’s like to go to a sporting event, not know the rules, and have no idea why an entire stadium is cheering. I know what it’s like to walk down the street and get looked at, pointed at, and whispered about. I know firsthand what it feels like to face the challenges my students face every day. And most importantly, I not only know another language, but I know how to learn another language. I know which building blocks of a second language come first, which are the most difficult, and which are essential to everyday conversation. I know which studying methods work, and why. I know how to teach a second language effectively.Studying abroad has given me the experiences I need to teach ESL: both the experience of living in another culture and the experience of struggling with a second language. No syllabus could have outlined the vital skills I know from my four short months in a foreign country. And not surprisingly, nearly every student in the UW-L TESOL program has had that glow—the glow I once longed for and now have, which makes for one well-qualified group of future English teachers ready to take on a classroom of second language learners, wherever in the world it may take us.