Saints alums and students teach English as a Foreign Language (EFL) in Baotou, Inner Mongolia, China
By Jeff Birkenstein
How do you know when you are, finally, a “teacher”? What does it take to become a teacher? And a good one, at that? How much practice do you need?
Still unanswered, definitively, that is. I have been teaching since 1996 when I started my doctoral work at the University of Kentucky and I still don’t know the answers to these questions. Of course, I’m not completely without some thoughts on the subject, but I largely think that, in the end, it has a lot to do with the answer to the old joke: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
So, practice, yes, is important. But there is more. There is the interaction between a teacher and her or his students, of course. But there is also the community that fellow teachers share. The best teachers discuss the craft with each other. It is not just something they do, but something they live. Not just a job, but a vocation. But that still doesn’t quite capture it all either.
And there is practice.
Yes, practice was the goal of three very different students/former students with whom I was fortunate enough to travel to the
Inner Mongolia University of Science and Technology (IMUST) this past May. Tristan Beach, (BA/English, SMU ‘09; MFA/Creative Writing, Goddard College, ‘13), Spencer Kirkwood (Mechanical Engineering, SMU, expected ‘15), and Erika Wilson (Business Admin, SMU ‘12; MIT, expected ‘15) are each working on, or considering, teaching as a career.
Tristan has conducted poetry-writing seminars on our campus as part of his MFA project and is currently working both on campus in the ESOL program and right this minute is teaching business English to professionals at our affiliate university in Xi’an, China.
Erika is currently conducting her student teaching at a nearby school. In China, she spoke often about her students and was ever on the search for something to bring them that was both meaningful and practical for a large class. I know they are happy to have her back, but will also be excited to hear her stories about students in China.
Spencer, a soon-to-be newly minted engineer, is considering teaching as a career, as his wife has already done. It was an honor to witness how this experience was a huge leap forward for his teaching skills, and I know he and his wife are already considering returning to Inner Mongolia after graduation to teach some more.
While I have been fortunate enough to travel to China before, traveling there with students who would be teaching was a new experience for me, made even more rewarding because this was the first time to China for Erika, Spencer, and Tristan. Besides the practical experience of working with EFL college students (mostly) and gradeschoolers (parts of two days), China, with its long, complicated, and fascinating history, is a must-see country for anyone willing to explore outside their American comfort zone. And once there, people will find a country growing at a dizzying rate, with many people who are eager, just as we were, to connect to people outside their own borders.
So, how did I end up in Inner Mongolia? Well, it is interesting to consider how the desire of a colleague from the other side of the world to become a better teacher is affecting the lives of so many. A few years ago, SMU was fortunate to have IMUST English professor Leah Dong come to our campus, unofficially, and ask to meet with professors and students, and to attend classes. She was in the area visiting friends and wanted to learn more about the American system of education. One of the many classes she attended was “Reframing 9/11: Narratives from the Aftermath,” a team-taught course that SMU anthropology professor David Price, Ph.D. and I were teaching at the time. Leah stayed with us about half the semester, read the material, and participated in the conversations. It was a fruitful exchange all around.
But our relationship with Leah did not end there. Back home, she worked with her university to invite and host a member of our English department. Once there, in October ’11, I learned about the school and, though it is first and foremost a science and technology school, it has an extensive English language and literature program. I had taught before in China, with business majors who were also studying the English language, but it was thrilling this time to discuss the likes of Zora Neale Hurston and Edgar Allan Poe with interested literature colleagues and students in China. From that meeting, then, came this program for our SMU students.
Last year, my English colleague Jamie Olson, Ph.D. traveled to IMUST with Saint Martin’s students for practice teaching, as well. I am pleased that Josephine Yung, Vice President, Office of International Programs and Development, and Joyce Westgard, Associate Vice President of Institutional Effectiveness/Dean, Counseling Psychology, have also visited IMUST for the first time recently in an effort to further our schools’ relationship.
Also, this Fall, SMU will have its first IMUST student! An English major who has chosen the name Wendy (not because she is a fan of J. M. Barrie’s creation, though she may be, but because this name closely matches the pronunciation of her Chinese name) will come to campus as a junior in pursuit of a BA degree.
So, where does this latest experience with the young teachers Erika, Spencer and Tristan leave me? This international exchange of ideas, learning and teaching? It reminds me, yet again, that becoming a “superior” teacher is a lifelong practice. Indeed, I am still working on it myself. That each new classroom, exchange of ideas with fellow teachers, and teaching moment—whether here or on foreign soil—is a new opportunity on an unknown path. That every moment is an opportunity to practice our craft and take delight in the endless possibilities that arise when both in and out of the classroom.