Resilient Optimism Through Uncertainty in the Development of Virtual Professional Development for EFL Teachers in Tajikistan
Feature article by Elise Brittain, The University of Texas at San Antonio
Despite the struggles brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic during the 2020-2021 academic year, there were possibilities for graduate students to put their vast experience to use and engage in skills development. The ingenuity of people’s responses to social distancing has facilitated a rise in awareness of virtual opportunities beyond students’ university programs. One such opportunity that I participated in was the U.S. Department of State Virtual Student Federal Service (VSFS) Internship program, in which I supported English teacher preparation initiatives of the U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. From September 2020 to May 2021, I leveraged the online space in which the instructors and I collaborated during the program to develop and conduct English as a foreign language (EFL) teacher training.
The VSFS Internship program is an opportunity for U.S. citizen undergraduate and graduate students to develop their skills and gain professional experience. The program website, vsfs.state.gov, says the program offers students the chance to contribute to “projects that advance the work of government on multiple fronts,” including “helping counter violent extremism, strengthening human rights monitoring, developing virtual programs, engaging in digital communications, mapping, economic and political reporting, data analysis, graphic design, and app building.” With projects designed to provide flexibility but also make a meaningful contribution, selected interns in this program work virtually for a maximum of ten hours a week from September to May. The application period for the 2020-2021 academic year introduced 776 available project postings which represented a wide range of government offices, project goals, and fields. The variety of projects includes multiple options for graduate students in applied linguistics and related fields, depending on their skills and background, including projects associated with English teaching, cultural exchange, or social media engagement.
My background as an ESL teacher and teacher trainer led me to educational and cultural exchange projects. My previous experience providing teacher training in Central Asia also influenced my interests. My first choice, and the position for which I was selected, was titled “Help Teach Tajikistan’s English Faculty through the English Resource Center.” Later, I learned more about the English Resource Center, or ERC, which is supported by American Councils and the U.S. Embassy, and is housed in the pedagogical university in Dushanbe. Its purpose is to provide training, resources, and engagement for the English faculty at the institution. My role allowed me to interact with English teachers, provide methodology training, and offer opportunities for teachers’ English proficiency development.
Because a virtual internship had not previously been conducted in conjunction with the newly opened ERC, the project began with uncertainty of the outcomes. It was difficult to project the possibilities available in an environment in which many obstacles hindered participation, such as institutional policies related to COVID-19 precautions and limited internet connectivity. For instance, a rule was instituted limiting the number of teachers allowed in the ERC space to 6-7 at one time, based on the room’s square footage. However, in the institution where the ERC is housed, restrictions regarding social distancing or wearing protective masks had been removed. This discrepancy between the policies of the institution and the policies of the ERC caused some dissonance. Although teachers who were not in the group of 6-7 could participate in sessions in the ERC by joining via Zoom from a different physical space, those who attempted to connect on other devices faced challenges of limited internet data or speed. Although these were challenges that could not be solved during my internship in the ERC, they revealed areas for continued development in future virtual programming.
One of my main concerns as a teacher trainer which persisted throughout the project was building rapport with participants through online interaction. The ERC had already secured a furnished room, set up a Zoom account, mounted a large monitor on the wall for presentations, and installed internet access. Thus, Zoom became the medium of interaction with the teachers. Compared to my previous experience conducting face-to-face trainings, there were many obstacles to developing rapport through Zoom. For instance, I had typically relied on seeing facial expressions, listening in on group work, reading body language, and controlling my physical proximity as strategies to understand participants’ experience. This “reading” of participants had always allowed me to adjust my approach to training sessions and adapt my engagement strategies and feedback.
However, during the sessions I facilitated in the ERC, I could only see on my small laptop screen that there were people sitting at tables because the webcam was attached above the large monitor where my face and PowerPoint presentation were prominently displayed in the room. I could recognize some of the participants’ body language but could not clearly view their facial expressions because of the video distortion. I was able to hear clearly when only one person spoke out at a time, but when multiple people were speaking at the same time, it was difficult to hear. Being in proximity and exuding a calm and kind presence is a way I had traditionally engaged with trainees, and in this case, distance was an unavoidable factor. During these sessions, I had to accept some uncertainty about what the participants were comprehending and relied on them to communicate their needs.
Without knowing exactly how to make it work, it was clear that alternative strategies were required in this training environment. Not only did I want to establish rapport with participants, but I also wanted our sessions to provide engaging activities that modeled what participants could apply to their face-to-face teaching contexts. The following strategies contributed to the achievement of these goals:
Including opportunities during each session for teachers to share their own experiences from their teaching and personal lives: This enabled me to learn about them and their teaching context, especially since I could not be there to observe it myself.
Incorporating a regular activity asking participants to provide the translations of key words from sessions and discuss how their uses differed across languages: This activity facilitated culture and language exchange.
Creating a shared WhatsApp group as an established communication channel that reached beyond our Zoom sessions: This provided ongoing engagement for participants and myself to report on learning, ask questions, share resources, and make announcements.
Instituting a Teacher of the Month award which encouraged participants to record a video and write a reflection demonstrating how they had applied their learning from ERC professional development sessions in their teaching practice or how they had shared new teaching ideas with their colleagues: This provided a cascading effect in which participants shared their learning with students and colleagues, who then also benefited from the sessions.
Ultimately, uncertainty fueled the development of a variety of teacher training sessions and shared commitment among myself, the participants, and the coordinators to face challenges with resilient optimism. Interestingly, informal feedback from trainees suggested that this model of teacher training increased the amount of engagement participants had in teacher trainings compared to previous in-person long-term programs on their campus. This may be due to the ERC itself, which provided a dedicated space for these activities and a motivated coordinator. The most important success was our collective mindset of experimentation and adjustment.
The following list of suggestions is based on my experience facilitating these types of virtual workshops:
Start a shared online group with participants. Use a platform such as WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook, or other central hub that is most familiar to participants.
Schedule content for the shared group. Make plans to post questions, resources, and announcements regularly for ongoing engagement. Examples include sharing PDFs of open-source books or materials, requesting photos of teachers’ classrooms, sharing photos of your own teaching, and posting regular reminders about upcoming sessions.
Plan for different types of participant interaction. If some participants are in one room together and others join via Zoom, use breakout rooms to give everyone opportunities for pair or group work.
Engage with participants’ culture. Gather information about language, culture, context, daily life, etc. and make notes to remember and extend what you learned.
Finally, for U.S. citizen graduate students who are interested in learning more about or applying for the VSFS Internship program in the future, the following information and suggestions are provided:
Note that applications open during July and require submission of a resume, a 3500-word statement of interest which describes your interest in up to three different projects, and an unofficial transcript.
View the previous year’s projects before applications open to get a sense of the types of projects available.
Focus on how the projects you apply for can contribute to your area of expertise.
Be specific in your statement of interest about what draws you to each project.
The opinions stated in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State or American Councils.
Elise Brittain is a Ph.D. student of Culture, Literacy, and Language with a decade of teaching experience, including in intensive English programs, an international elementary school, and in universities in Uzbekistan. She currently serves on the boards of Texas Language Education Research (TexLER) and TexTESOL II in San Antonio.